Even for ever confident Diana Taurasi, the greatest scorer in WNBA history, it takes some nerve to wear a jersey with Kobe Bryant’s name and No. 8 in a game.
Understanding the expectations that would accompany the decision, Taurasi almost didn’t go through with honoring her friend Bryant in that way Sunday on what would have been his 42nd birthday.
“Even until the moment I put it on, I was still a little hesitant,” Taurasi said. “Then when I ran out there, I was like let’s go for it.
“There was only one way to play. I’m not talking about scoring points, I’m just talking about loving basketball and competing and putting that effort he taught me by watching him every single day.”
The Mamba mentality that linked the two superstars until Bryant’s death along with his daughter Gigi and six others in a helicopter crash in January. Taurasi, nicknamed the White Mamba by Bryant, spoke at his memorial service in February and spoke loudly on the court in his honor Sunday with a season-high 34 points in an 88-87 win over Washington.
Taurasi, whose career high is 47 from 2006, made seven 3-pointers (one off her career best) in willing the Mercury (7-7) past the defending but short-handed WNBA champions to end a three-game losing streak. She didn’t do it alone — there were notable other contributions — but it was the kind of performance that was a trademark of Bryant during his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers (No. 4 NBA career scorer).
Yes, Taurasi said afterward, she felt like she did Kobe proud, recalling Bryant’s 65-point game against Portland in 2007 to end a losing streak.
“They had just lost seven in a row, and the way he played that way you would have thought they won seven in a row,” she said. “We were kind of in the same position where things are happening. Today I wanted to act like we have a chance to fight and play with passion. I carried that the last couple of days with me.”
The Mercury played for a second game without 6-9 center and leading scorer Brittney Griner, who has now left the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, for personal reasons and could potentially miss the rest of the season. Also Nia Coffey (hand) did not play, leaving the Mercury with nine available players.
Washington (4-9) is actually in worse shape personnel-wise, playing the season without 2019 WNBA Most Valuable Player Elena Delle Donne and newly acquired Tina Charles and currently without Emma Meesseman (shoulder) and Aerial Powers (hamstring).
With both teams clawing to make the eight-team cutoff for the WNBA playoffs, the result hung in the balance until 38-year-old Taurasi proved insurmountable with her highest scoring output since 37 vs Las Vegas in August 2018.
She had 14 at halftime, when the Mystics led 39-38, and 19 after three quarters (65-61 Washington). Her 15-point fourth quarter included three 3-pointers, the second of those putting the Mercury ahead 74-73 with 6:15 left and starting a 9-0 run. She hit another trey at 3:33 but missed two of three free throws at 1:16, giving Washington an opening.
Mystics’ center Myisha Hines-Allen drove for a potential game-tying layup in the final 10 seconds that Alanna Smith blocked to Mercury teammate Brianna Turner, leading to a breakout game-clinching layup by Bria Hartley.
Center Kia Vaughn, replacing Griner in the starting lineup, scored a season high 16 (14 in the first half). Forward Turner had nine points and a career 17 rebounds. Turner and Smith combined for seven blocks. Hartley and Skylar Diggins-Smith combined for 21 points.
“When you’re used to relying on someone that’s not there (Griner), it gives an opportunity for other people,” Turner said. “We’re going to have to do it by committee. Today it was my turn to score a lot of points, the next came it could be Digs or Bria. This is an ongoing story we’re going to keep writing. As long as we have the effort and we all chip in a little bit every game, we have a chance to be really good.”
Taurasi is putting her Bryant jersey up for auction through Tuesday with proceeds benefiting the Mamba and Mambacita (Gigi Bryant) Sports Foundation. That’s another story, too, that Taurasi wants to make sure continues.
“We celebrate him but we still mourn him,” Taurasi said. “We mourn Gigi, everyone on that helicopter. We lost a lot that day, and this is a just a little we’re going to continue to do to make sure Kobe and Gigi and his family are honored the right way.
“Because Kobe put everything into what he did, and now it’s our responsibility to pay it forward. That’s what Kobe would have done. There was no quit in him and as the basketball community goes on, there’s going to be no quit in us in remembering Kobe.”
Follow Jeff Metcalfe on Twitter: @jeffmetcalfe.