Diana Taurasi came back for the Phoenix Mercury, but it wasn't the team's night. Their 79-64 loss at the Connecticut Sun on Friday was a good example of just how challenging and unpredictable the WNBA is this season.
The host Sun came in on a five-game losing streak during which nothing seemed to be working. The Mercury were coming off one of their best overall games of the season -- a 91-68 victory at Washington on Wednesday. Mystics star Elena Delle Donne missed that game because of a nose injury. Still, the way the Mercury clicked, it seemed like perfect timing for Taurasi's season debut after being sidelined following back surgery.
But things are frequently not what they seem this WNBA season. Or, more accurately, things can change on a dime. The Mercury led 36-30 at halftime, but Taurasi played sparingly in the second half. A Mercury spokesman said Taurasi had a minor tweak to her back during the game and then met with a trainer afterward. Also, veteran forward Sancho Lyttle reinjured her left knee and will need to be evaluated.
Lyttle saw her 2018 season cut short at 18 games by an ACL injury to the same knee. Coach Sandy Brondello said she thought Lyttle was starting to return to form this season, but now that's in question. The Mercury might have a situation where just when they get one player back, they lose another.
But -- provided the tweak doesn't sideline her again -- what sort of player is Taurasi now that she has returned? Friday's game didn't tell us a great deal. She played just 16 minutes, and didn't make a field goal, going 0-for-4 from the field. She scored five points from the line, plus four assists and three rebounds. And the guidance she has provided the Mercury from the bench was delivered on the floor for the first time in a game this season.
"It's been a struggle at times," Brondello said. "It's not just her scoring we missed. We missed her leadership, her passing ability."
Phoenix is very much a veteran team, with the likes of Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner, Briann January, Leilani Mitchell, Essence Carson and Camille Little, along with Taurasi and Lyttle. But the Mercury also hope to get more from three rookies -- Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith and Brianna Turner -- as this season continues. Even when she's not playing, Taurasi, 37, has provided a lot of feedback for the youngsters, but also for her fellow veterans.
"She has been trying to help put us in the right positions even on the bench, and giving us motivational talks before the game," said Bonner, who led Phoenix with 20 points and eight rebounds Friday. "The good thing is we started without her in training camp and made a pact as a team that just because she was missing didn't mean we couldn't be good.
"I think we're a pretty good team without her, but with her back we'll be even better."
"I think we're a pretty good team without her, but with her back we'll be even better." Phoenix's DeWanna Bonner on Diana Taurasi's return
It didn't really play out that way Friday, but Connecticut had a lot to do with that. The Sun started the season winning nine of their first 10 before going on the five-game skid. While Taurasi's return was supposed to boost Phoenix, perhaps it energized the Sun as well.
The Mercury ended Connecticut's season in the playoffs the past two years. The Sun desperately needed to get back on the winning track Friday, so maybe those playoff memories and Taurasi's return worked in their favor. All five starters scored in double figures, with three finishing with double-doubles in points and rebounds: Alyssa Thomas (20-10), Jonquel Jones (13-11) and Courtney Williams (10-10).
This WNBA season already has had many twists and turns even before the All-Star Game, so one game isn't going to drastically affect any team's feeling about its season. Still, Friday ended up being more of a boost for the Sun than the Mercury, and we'll wait to see how soon Taurasi will be back as more her old self.