Rather than diminish her scoring, the return from injury of WNBA star Diana Taurasi to the Phoenix lineup has only served to assist Leilani Mitchell in continuing what has been a career-best season.
In posting a career-high 29-points, Phoenix pulled away from New York in the latter stages to move to 14-15 and within a single victory of securing the final playoff berth for 2019, knocking the Liberty out of contention in the process.
Already with a 28-point game under her belt this season, Mitchell showed her intent early, burying the first of five threes in the opening minute on her way to 10 first half points as Phoenix kept pace with New York to hold a 49-46 advantage as the teams headed to the locker rooms. However, after a Liberty run to open the third quarter gave the home side the lead, Mitchell slowly but surely began to take over.
With the Liberty defence forced to choose between Mitchell and an equally dominant Brittney Griner, who also finished with 29 points, the pair were able to take the game by the scruff of the neck and deliver the Mercury a 7-point advantage heading into the final term. Mitchell then put the game to bed in the fourth quarter.
With the Mercury up 9 heading into the last five minutes, 8 points in three minutes from the Australian point guard put Mitchell within a point of the 28-point career high set on July 30 and extended the Phoenix lead to 13. Mitchell would score the Phoenix’s final 10 points of the game to round out a 95-82 victory, securing her career-high with a late free throw to finish with 29 points on 10 of 13 shooting, including 5 of 6 from beyond the arc, as a highlight-filled season continues for the Australian star.
Whilst the milestone is impressive in and of itself, the fact that Mitchell was able to put up a performance like this with Taurasi back in the lineup potentially speaks volumes about Phoenix’s potential coming into playoffs.
Taurasi tallied 10 assists in the win, directing traffic with aplomb as Mitchell and Griner took advantage of the additional attention that Taurasi commands from opposition defences. Whilst they will probably finish the regular season somewhere between the sixth and eighth seed, a Mercury side with Taurasi back at full fitness is an entirely different prospect to what teams have faced over the course of the season to this point.
Mitchell has now scored 12 or more points in 12 of her last 13 games, and has scored in excess of 20 points on five occasions this season. Her 13.2 points per game this season is almost 4 more than her career-high of 9.3 set in 2010 during her time with the New York Liberty. Yet more impressively, her effort represents triple her output from a season ago as the 34-year-old stands up as a veteran presence in the absence of Taurasi. She is also shooting at a 43.4% clip from beyond the arc, a vast improvement on last year’s disappointing 34% mark from one of the finest shooters to step foot on a WNBA court.