By Mark Carlisle
PHOENIX — The Mercury kicked off the 2018 WNBA season off with a 86-78 win home win over the Dallas Wings and Diana Taurasi inked her name on another page of the league’s history.
After draining her fourth 3-pointer of the night midway through the third quarter to become the first player in WNBA history to make 1,000 3s in her career. She also scored a game-high 26 points, 20 of which came in the first half. She made 5 of 8 3-pointers.
The Mercury sit atop the standings for at least a moment. Friday was the first game of the WNBA season. One game will be played Saturday, and all 12 teams will play Sunday, when the Mercury will travel to Seattle to play the Storm.
Taurasi downplayed the milestone, one of many entering her 14th season in a Mercury uniform, including becoming the league’s all-time leading scorer last season.
“I mean, it’s pretty cool,” Taurasi said after the game about becoming the first woman to 1,000. “You know, I told the guys in here, ‘You play long enough, it’ll happen. Just play a long time, it’ll happen.’”
It wasn’t the first time she’d said it.
Coach Sandy Brondello and teammate Brittney Griner could both recite the worn-out line.
“She goes, ‘If you play long enough, you’re going to break these records,’” Brondello said. “But you have to be a pretty special player to do what she’s done. And she continues to do it.”
Griner made fun of the line, reciting it in her best Taurasi voice, but she wanted to make sure her ever-humble teammate took the time to recognize her accomplishment.
“She’s not going to talk about it, because you know that’s amazing,” Griner said. “So, I had to tell her how dope that was.”
Taurasi, who turns 36 next month, reached 1,000 3s in her 399th career game. She became just the fourth player in the NBA or WNBA to reach the milestone in fewer than 400 games, joining the Warriors’ Steph Curry (369) and Klay Thompson (372) and the Trailblazer’s Damien Lillard (385).
“Night in, night out, everybody’s seeing it,” Griner said of Taurasi’s play. “Big shots, just smart plays, just seeing stuff ahead of time. Sky’s still the limit for her honestly, on how long she wants to play.”
DeWanna Bonner had a big return to the court after missing the 2017 season while giving birth two twins. The 6-foot-4 forward had a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds as well as three steals and three blocks.
Brondello pointed to Bonner’s last rebound, an offensive board late in the fourth where she passed to Taurasi for an open 3 that sealed the victory for the Mercury.
Bonner said she was nervous returning to the Talking Stick Resort Arena for her first regular season game since 2016 where she was a top-15 scorer in the league, but she bounced back quickly in her 2018 debut.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Be pregnant, give birth to twins, recover and try to come back and get back in the shape I was before,” Bonner said.
Much of the game hinged on Griner’s matchup in the paint with fellow 6-foot-9 center Liz Cambage, who returned to the WNBA for the first time since 2013.
Brondello said Cambage had Griner’s number in the first half, where the Dallas center scored 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting.
Griner agreed with her coach.
“There’s no excuse for that, that was on me, because I just let her go right to her tendencies and do everything,” she said. “I don’t know what was wrong with me when I started the game. But you know the team stuck behind me, the coaches got on me (but) stuck behind me and the second half I was able to make her work on both ends. So, I was able to turn it around.”
Cambage was held to four points on 1 of 5 shooting in the second half. That improved defense was a team effort between Griner and backup center Marie Gulich, the Mercury’s 12th overall draft pick. Gulich scored two points in 10 minutes and went 0 for 3 from the field with one rebound in her debut, but played tough defense on Cambage.
Brondello, the head coach of the Australian national team, knows Cambage, a fellow Aussie, well. She coached the 26-year-old to a gold medal in April’s Commonwealth Games.
“Well, you think I would know her in the first half, but BG wasn’t executing what I told her to do,” Brondello said. “But Liz, she’s a formidable player. I mean, she’s got that size, but she’s got that really soft touch, can play off the dribble, can shoot outside, but once we took away her strengths it kind of helped us a little bit.”
On top of nine rebounds, Cambage finished with 18 points, which tied for the Wings lead with 2017 1st Team All-WNBA point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. Griner finished with 13 points and seven rebounds.
Griner said it had been awhile since she matched up with someone her height. She looked forward to the rivalry that could form between she and Cambage, who had only met twice in WBNA games back in 2013.
“I’m glad she’s back in the league,” Griner said. “It’s always going to a good matchup, just like me and Sylv (Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles), that’s the one they always talk about, but now it’s me, Sylv, Jonquel (Jones, of Connecticut), A’ja Wilson in Vegas. So, honestly, it’s kind of like the year of the bigs. The bigs are coming back. Watch out.”
Griner’s ex-wife Glory Johnson was booed by the Phoenix crowd when her name was read with the Wings’ starting lineup. In the fourth quarter, Johnson went to the sideline wincing in pain after being fouled by Taurasi near mid court.
The forward had to be helped off the court and left the locker room after the game on crutches. The Wings did not give details about the injury.
In addition to Bonner’s return, the Mercury add two new faces to their starting five, both with defensive prowess. Former ASU great Briann January takes over at point guard after Danielle Robinson was traded to the Lynx, and Sancho Lyttle now starts at power forward after signing in the offseason from Atlanta. Both players are six-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selections.
January started the season with 10 points, four assists, four rebounds, one block and a rare zero steals. Lyttle had a slower start, with only four points, and one assist, rebound and block.