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Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi in pursuit of MVP history

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She would be oldest player in league history to win

Connecticut Sun v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 2018 season was portrayed as the best shot at a championship for the Phoenix Mercury since winning it all in 2014. The ascendance of Brittney Griner. The return of DeWanna Bonner. The additions of veteran stabilizers Briann January and Sancho Lyttle. Perhaps amid it all, the GOAT was feeling a little overlooked.

So she changed that.

Diana Taurasi is cobbling together her finest season in five years and at 36 years old is adding another exhibit in support of the “Age is just a number” mantra. In fact, Ra’s al Ghul might want to check the security cameras to see if she’s been swimming laps in his Lazarus Pit because she’s returned to a place most assumed had passed her by — the MVP short list.

The smart money was on her teammate Griner, who was a candidate last season, taking another step forward here in 2018. But this summer has belonged to Taurasi. In her 14th season, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer is averaging 20.3 points per game, which is good for fourth in the league, and has cracked 25 points nine times, with a season high of 33. She is posting points efficiently, as well, leading the league in free throw percentage with a career-high 93.7 percent from the charity stripe and draining 39.8 percent of her 3-point attempts (10th in the league) while shooting a Stephen Curry-like volume. (She has 211 attempts or 8.4 per game; the next closest is the Indiana Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell with 167 or 6.4.)

Taurasi has also been her team’s primary ball-handler and distributor, dishing 4.8 assists, which ranks seventh in the WNBA. And she’s registering her second-highest steals average in seven seasons.

Her efforts thus far earned her Western Conference Player of the Month honors in June and her ninth All-Star selection, starting in the game just last Saturday. But if she can haul in the hardware at season’s end, she will etch another achievement into a plaque already destined for Springfield.

The oldest MVP in WNBA history was Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets, who at 35 years old won her second-consecutive MVP award in 1998. Taurasi winning the award at 36 would not only best an accomplishment from one of the greatest women’s players ever, it would best the men’s side as well, as Karl Malone was the oldest NBA MVP (35 years old at the end of the 1998-99 regular season).

It is a testament to both her work ethic and talent that her game remains at such a high level this late into her career. Retiring from her international team last December has also helped the veteran, as year-round competition was grinding her down like a millstone. Given time to rest and recuperate before this WNBA season for the first time as a professional, she is reminding everyone why she is considered by most to be the greatest player in the history of women’s basketball.

But she’s not Superwoman.

The Mercury spent most of the season as the first or second seed in the playoff picture, tearing off an 8-game winning streak in June. But a season-ending left ACL injury suffered by power forward Lyttle on Jun. 30 has left the team reeling. They’ve lost six of their last eight since the injury and sit in fifth place in the playoff seedings with a 15-11 record.

Frustration was most definitely setting in before the All-Star break, as Taurasi served a one-game suspension for reaching the league’s technical foul limit of seven and now has one “free” tech to play with over the stretch run before incurring another suspension. Meanwhile, Griner was ejected on Jul. 25 for a flagrant 2 in a game Phoenix sorely needed to win.

Fortunately for the Mercury, the parity in the WNBA this season is as good as it’s been in years, with seeds one through eight separated by just five games with three weeks left in the regular season. And with four of the Mercury’s final eight games against teams ahead of them in the standings and another three against teams presently out of the playoff picture, they can make up ground in a hurry and still earn one of the coveted top-two seeds, avoiding the single-elimination rounds.

Earning a high seed will be important not only for the team’s championship aspirations but for Taurasi’s designs on the MVP trophy, as the same parity that has created intriguing end-of-season playoff jockeying has littered the field with MVP candidates.

Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm would appear to be the favorite. Her team is in first place in the WNBA, and she leads the league in scoring at 22.8 points per game while grabbing 8.4 rebounds to go along. But there are others. There’s the streaking Atlanta Dream’s Angel McCoughtry; former MVPs on the lurking Minnesota Lynx, Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles; the Los Angeles Sparks’ stalwart Candace Parker; the one-woman show for the Washington Mystics in Elena Delle Donne; and the Dallas WingsLiz Cambage, who scored a WNBA-record 53 points on Jul. 17 against the New York Liberty.

Taurasi would never acknowledge her MVP candidacy, instead falling over herself to talk about team goals and the pursuit of the franchise’s fourth title. But she is as competitive and driven as anyone who has ever played, and the idea of winning MVP at an age none of her peers ever have must appeal to her on some level.

For Taurasi to stand apart from such a crowded group and earn her second regular-season MVP crown, her team success will need to mirror her individual accomplishments, meaning the team as a whole must find a way to compensate for the loss of Lyttle and make up ceded ground. A top-two finish is probably a requirement for serious consideration, and a dominant kick to the finish by Taurasi would position her as the driving force behind the Mercury’s success, giving her a strong counterargument against Stewart.

It won’t be easy, but making history isn’t supposed to be easy.

Taurasi just makes it look that way.