SEATTLE -- To reach the WNBA Finals and finally hand Diana Taurasi's Phoenix Mercury a loss in a deciding game, all the Seattle Storm needed was a huge game from the current MVP and a Taurasi-esque performance from one of her closest friends.
Wins over Dallas and Connecticut in the elimination rounds pushed the Mercury's record to 13-0 in winner-take-all games with Taurasi. When Phoenix controlled the first half Tuesday, leading by as many as 11 points, the visiting Mercury looked well on their way to making that 14-0.
With MVP Breanna Stewart leading the charge, the Storm rallied to tie the score late in the third quarter. Then Seattle turned things over to Sue Bird, who proved that she, too, can make big shots in big situations, despite wearing a face mask to protect a broken nose suffered on Sunday. Bird's first 3-pointer of the fourth quarter came with 5:48 left and the Storm down four. A minute later, Bird drilled a step-back jumper just inside the arc, followed by another 3 on a kickout after an offensive rebound.
When Bird nailed a third triple two possessions later -- moments after having the face mask knocked off her face in a scramble for the ball that left her atypically furious at referees who called no foul and awarded a jump ball -- she'd racked up 11 points in a stretch of fewer than three minutes that saw Seattle outscore Phoenix 15-3 to go from down four to up eight with 2:51 to play. Bird -- who said the scramble caused the mask to "hit down on to my nose, and it started bleeding" -- later added a fourth 3 in the quarter as insurance in the final minute.
"I was just open," Bird said after the game. "It was mostly off them having to focus on Stewie so much because she was being so aggressive. Other players kind of getting in there, creating these openings. A lot of those were kickouts to me, and I was able to knock them in."
In addition to the defensive attention she drew, Bird credited Stewart with a timely reminder about her shot.
"Somewhere late in the third, early in the fourth quarter, she was like, 'Hey, you need to use your legs,'" Bird recalled. "I was like, 'Oh yeah, good point.' Because a lot of the shots I had been taking in that third quarter, I was really short. So I just kind of, when I had the openings, tried to think about that and shoot it the same way. I'm happy that Stewie reminded me of that."
Although Bird had started well, scoring eight points and handing out four assists in the first quarter, she was just 1-of-6 on 3-pointers through the first three periods before exploding in the fourth in an atypical way for the WNBA's all-time leader in assists.
"It's probably one of the best little stints of basketball [by her], but that's what she can do," said Taurasi, Bird's teammate at UConn, on the U.S. women's national team and for several years in Russia during the WNBA offseason. "She could probably do that more often, but she's the consummate point guard. She always wants to get everyone else involved. That's routine Sue to me but incredible, really. An incredible performance by her."
"I've had the pleasure of coaching her this year," first-year Storm coach Dan Hughes said. "There were no finer moments than that fourth quarter and watching her."
"I don't know that I've had a fourth quarter like this in as big a game in my life, to be honest," Bird said.
Despite Bird's heroics, the Storm couldn't feel comfortable -- not after the Mercury's rallies in this series. They overcame a 19-point deficit in Game 2 to force overtime (later won by the Storm) with back-to-back Taurasi 3-pointers. During Sunday's Game 4, Phoenix came all the way back from 17 points down to win with Bird on the sideline due to the broken nose.
"That's what we learned in the first couple of games. They're never out of it when they have Diana," Bird said. "That probably helped us win this game, that experience."
In the end, Taurasi and the Mercury's other stars might have run out of gas. Having played extended minutes throughout the series -- including center Brittney Griner going the distance in both Games 4 and 5 -- Phoenix went more than four minutes without a field goal in the fourth quarter, which the Mercury had previously dominated. They never got closer than seven in the final minute before coach Sandy Brondello pulled Taurasi with 13.5 seconds left, conceding both the game and the win streak in winner-take-all games.
That the Storm were even in a position for Bird to take over owed largely to Stewart, who also played all 40 minutes and scored 28 points on 11-of-21 shooting. Stewart's production helped keep the Seattle offense afloat when Bird and fellow All-Star guard Jewell Loyd -- who finished with six points and sat out the entire fourth quarter -- were struggling to score.
Stewart also spent part of the night contending with Griner, whose dominant post play forced the Storm to double-team her throughout the game.
"She was there defensively. She was there offensively," Hughes said. "That's an MVP. That is truly an MVP. We leaned on her, and she delivered big."
Having slayed the Taurasi dragon, the Storm will head back to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2010, when they beat Atlanta for their second championship -- both won with Bird at point guard. Washington's win earlier Tuesday in Atlanta prevented a rematch, leaving Seattle to host Washington in a clash of the WNBA's top two offensive teams.
After coming out on the losing end, it was clear which team Brondello was picking.
"They're the No. 1 team in the league, and they proved that tonight," Brondello said. "They've got Sue Bird, who's one of the all-time greats there and all her experience, and Stewie's playing great."
On Tuesday night, that formula was enough to do the previously impossible: beat Taurasi and Phoenix in a winner-take-all game. We'll know soon whether it's enough to deliver the Storm another title.