Diana Taurasi is 38 and as unstoppable as she’s ever been

Diana Taurasi is in her 16th season and playing just like her typically unstoppable self.

Diana Taurasi has as much magic as anyone in the history of the game of basketball. It’s the sheer quantity of production with the uncanny ability to elevate her teams in the precise moments they need it most.

It was no different on Sunday, her Phoenix Mercury clinging to a three-point lead in the latter stages of the fourth quarter against the Washington Mystics. Too many times to count, in ways hard to quantify, Taurasi finds the exaxt moment necessary for the drive to the hoop, to find an open teammate who needs to get going, or in this case, taking the requisite few inches that are all she needs to launch a 3-pointer.

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The record-holder for most made 3s hit another, on a night she’d finish with 34 points, her 48th career game north of 30 points. A Mercury team with designs on something bigger than last season’s 15-19 record and unceremonious first-round playoff loss needed this one, after three straight defeats had dropped them to 6-7.

Mercury general manager Jim Pitman has made a clear choice, again and again, to bet on Diana Taurasi for as long as his longest-tenured player and franchise icon will suit up for Phoenix. Instead of rebuilding, he added Skylar Diggins-Smith to the duo of Taurasi and Brittney Griner, looking to recreate the alchemy of the 2014 WNBA champions one more time.

Taurasi turned 38 in June, and if there hadn’t been a 2020 season, she said she probably would have retired. That’s hard to believe for someone who has often responded to questions about what she’ll do after basketball by saying she hasn’t even considered a different way to make a living is an open question. But the onrushing realities of age and the accompanying maladies — the back injury that cost her virtually all of 2019, an oblique issue that sidelined her for three games in 2020 — serve as reminders that while Pitman has provided us all with whatever the maximum amount of Diana Taurasi is to be, that quantity is not infinite.

So it is a further gift to the basketball-watching public, here in this year full of unfulfilled promises, that Diana Taurasi is essentially what she’s always been, even within the bubble in Bradenton, Florida.

What’s working so well for Diana Taurasi this season?

“The things I’ve always been able to do, I feel like I can still do them,” Taurasi said earlier this month. “Get people the ball, pass the ball, rebound the ball.”

The career 36.7 percent 3-point shooter is at 36.5 percent this season. Her assist percentage is 25.7 career, 28.6 in 2020. Rebound percentage, steal percentage — she’s above her career marks. Taurasi is Taurasi.

There is one way she says she truly measures how fully realized her game is, and that’s how often she’s driving to the basket. Back in 2018, 1.9 of her attempts from the field per game came inside of five feet, and she sank 74.2 percent of those shots. During her lost 2019, that number dropped to 0.8 attempts and 40 percent success on them. In 2020, it’s back up to 1.2 attempts per game at 53.8 percent accuracy overall.

She’s even found a way to get amped up: no, there aren’t road fans to quiet, as she has so many times, 13-1 in road elimination playoff games — a cliche stat precisely because she comes through — by taking on her old, familiar foe: the referees.

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“I mean there’s really no energy to feed off,” Taurasi said. “There’s no one in the gym and then you randomly hear, you know, the whistle from the other game going on at the same time… It’s just different than any other professional league and season I’ve ever been a part of.”

The part that’s the same, though, is the Phoenix Mercury, as they have for the better part of two decades, will rise and fall primarily on the fate of Taurasi. For head coach Sandy Brondello, much of 2019 was about building the team around the planned, eventual return of Taurasi, the thinking being that all it took was to get Taurasi healthy and into a road uniform, and good things would follow for Phoenix.

This season, the balance is different. It’s about getting Diggins-Smith comfortable, and since Brittney Griner left the bubble due to an undisclosed personal reason, it’s become necessary to patch on the interior, with Taurasi picking up more of the slack.

Even so, there is comfort for Brondello in knowing she has Taurasi as the given.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Brondello said of Taurasi. “In 2020, it’s the 2018 numbers that she’s putting up. She’s obviously a tough-minded player, and she can play in any type of situation. And she’s playing at a high level. So the key thing for us is just continue to do that, continue to build that chemistry with all the other players, too and be a credit to her — she worked really hard to get to where she is today.”

Whether that can be enough to win another WNBA title is an open question. Seattle features a player Taurasi never tires of pointing out is even older than she is, Sue Bird, but also Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd and Alysha Clark and… well, the list goes on and on. The Las Vegas Aces wear you down. The Los Angeles Sparks have a vintage MVP candidate of their own in Candace Parker, the Chicago Sky never slow down behind Courtney Vandersloot. Taurasi’s best might not be enough to own the league anymore. Not without a return from Griner, more output from Diggins-Smith and further improvement from the supporting cast.

That doesn’t mean it is time to take Taurasi for granted. It means it’s more important than ever to savor the typical Taurasi in the time left to enjoy her.

Sunday night, Taurasi may have somehow gotten the better of time once again, but she was obviously exhausted after that latest 34-point outburst. She’d worn number eight for the night, in honor of Kobe Bryant, and sat facing the media Zoom camera in a costume change, a Kobe gold and black Lakers jersey.

“From here on out, no matter what happens, I put a big burden on myself,” Taurasi said. “To make sure I’m in the game, I’m in practice, I’m in shootaround, I’m communicating. Can I play at the level I’ve played at the last 20 years? Who knows? But I’m going to put a big burden on myself to be present every single day, and bring every ounce of fight I have left in me.”

She flashed a smile. That fight was enough to get a victory.

“And after tonight, I feel a little bit better.”