RIO DE JANEIRO — Diana Taurasi has been there, done that, and won literally everything there is to win in women’s basketball — no, really. Everything.
NCAA titles at Connecticut. WNBA titles with Phoenix. Three Olympic gold medals (and counting….). Pro and college most valuable player awards and European titles in Russia, where she pulls down a $ 1 million-plus annual salary. She was actually paid by her Russian team not to play for the Mercury last summer, the better to rest her body for this year’s overseas run all the way to — are you kidding? — a seventh European title. So it was no surprise at all really when Taurasi — the ultimate winner — seemed to take it a little personally Tuesday when Serbia, the U.S. team’s third-round opponent at the Rio Summer Olympics, had ambitions of muddying this pretty picture. Serbia actually took a one-point lead with eight minutes gone in the first quarter — a rarity against this U.S. team — only to see Taurasi answer by scoring 11 of the United States’ next 15 points.
Nine of them came on three consecutive 3-pointers that left her shoving her hands straight down each side of her shorts as if she was putting them back into imaginary holsters by the third one she made.
The U.S. jumped back out to a 31-21 lead, and the Americans never looked back on the way to a 110-84 win. Taurasi had 22 of her team-best 25 points in the first half. The six three-pointers she made broke her own Olympic record of five.
“We knew what was up — they’re European champions for a reason,” Taurasi said of Serbia after the game. “It’s good for us to be challenged.”
The U.S. has now won 44 straight Olympic games and is chasing its sixth straight gold medal.
Taurasi, now 34, could score in the mid-20s any time she wants, but she’s smart enough to realize she doesn’t have to do that for this talent-laden team. Like a lot of stars, she knows it’s often when you score that matters most, not necessarily how much. She keeps a close eye on the emotional temperature of the team, whooping when they make a steal, barking when they miss a screen, keeping everyone engaged.
Tuesday, the U.S. hit a little scoring drought after a hot start. Olympic first-timer Elena Delle Donne, the reigning WNBA MVP, picked up two quick fouls almost as soon as she came in the game and went back to the bench when Taurasi — who has never been timid about shooting, anyway — seemed to get all Shakespearean and decide: If not noweth, then when?
“It was mostly about the group we had in the game at that time,” she stated. “We said, ‘We need to get on a run.’ “
And so she shot — one, two, three 3-pointers in a row. The net barely twitched. She bounced up and down and let out a little woo-hoo after the last of them. She was enjoying this. And her teammates were enjoying it too. If not Serbia.
“Wheeew, she was hot, wasn’t she?” swingman Angel McCoughtry said. “She just had that look.”
The way Taurasi is willing to switch between taking this team on her shoulders and deferring to her enormously talented teammates doesn’t make her unique on this squad of wall-to-wall stars. But she’s still the best at demanding the ball, and she’s the most fun to watch, if only because of her swagger and attitude. One of her nicknames is “White Mamba,” which can sound a little silly until you realize it was Kobe Bryant, the original Mamba, who gave her the name.
Taurasi, of course, loved it. She plays like she thinks she’s the biggest bad ass on the court. But off the court, say the other players, she’s the best teammate you could ever want.
Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 former Baylor center who now plays year-round with Taurasi in Russia and the WNBA, smiled the other day when asked if Taurasi has drifted away from the surprise motivational phone calls she used to make to her before games, skipping pleasantries like “hello” and getting right to the point — “Are you going to show up tonight or what?” — then hanging up before Griner could get a word in.
“She still does it,” Griner says, laughing, “but now she just says that stuff to my face.”
Taurasi often seems to be channeling U.S. coach Geno Auriemma, her mentor and alter ego at UConn, when she dissects games the U.S. has just played and nitpicks about what needs to be cleaned up.
Much like Auriemma, she got a little impatient after the United States’ past two games and gave a Geno-esque answer when asked a spin-off of the perennial UConn question: Is the U.S. women’s team’s dominance in Olympic play “bad for the game”?
When Taurasi was asked this a few days ago after routing Spain, she said, “If you don’t like watching good basketball, go watch rowing.”
Tuesday, asked the same “bad-for-basketball” question again, she laughed wearily and said, “I don’t even know how to answer it anymore. Would it be better if we lost by 50? ….We have 12 women that dedicate their lives to the game of basketball year-round — overseas, USA, the WNBA. So they’re knocking us for doing that?
“It’s a bit disrespectful, I would say.”
The U.S., now 3-0 in Rio, plays Canada Friday, then has one more game before it’s on to medal-round play. Said Taurasi: “We just need to come out of that locker room, and do what we do.”