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Inside the W With Michelle Smith: Semifinals Game 4 Key Role Players

The top two seeds are on the verge of elimination heading into Wednesday night’s Game 4 double-header on ESPN2.

Connecticut and Las Vegas need to win on the road or go home for a long, disappointing offseason. Phoenix and Chicago are playing their best basketball of the season and looking to return to the Finals for the first time since they faced one another back in 2014.

The most dramatic day of the season so far is upon us.

What will make the difference once the ball goes up? Will it be the players at the top of the marquee? Will it be the heroics of a role player?

Here is a look at four players who are primed to decide the semifinal series for their teams in the next few days.

Brianna Turner, Phoenix. The Mercury’s third-year forward had a star-making game in Game 3 against Las Vegas, scoring a career-high 23 points and 17 rebounds (including seven on the offensive glass) and played stellar defense in a surprisingly dominant 27-point win, putting Phoenix a win away from the franchise’s first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2014. Phoenix has relied heavily on its Big Three of Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Diana Taurasi, but Turner is bumping her way into that group. Her defense has stifled 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson, holding her to eight points on 2-of-14 shooting from the floor in Game 3.

Turner joined Griner to lead Phoenix to a playoff record of 58 rebounds in the game and said after the game that she and Griner are “vibing really well.”

In a matchup that centers on the battle inside, Turner is holding up her end and more.

Chelsea Gray, Las Vegas. The Aces, who have suffered their worst losses of the season in back-to-back games in this series, need the offense to counter a hot-shooting Phoenix team. Gray, the only player on the roster who has won a title (in Los Angeles in 2016), has to be the key to a rejuvenated Las Vegas scoring surge. Gray needs to be the player she was in Game 1, when she scored 17 points and dished out 12 assists. Las Vegas needs her to push the pace, be a calming presence, get to the rim and the free-throw line, and feed the ball to A’ja Wilson inside as often as possible. They need her to be the most physically imposing point guard in the WNBA. And they need her to keep the ball moving.

“Offensively, we are a bit stagnant, the ball was sticking and we were not as fluid as we usually are,” Gray said. “We need constant movement and we are going to have to get better and focus on the little things that have gotten us here.”

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut. AT is back and just in time for the Sun, who need their emotional leader in the middle of the action for a series that has them one loss from elimination and short of their title goals again. That the veteran forward is even on the floor putting in significant minutes is slightly miraculous considering that she is just about nine months removed from Achilles surgery and still has torn labrums in both shoulders. But Thomas, whose comeback started with limited minutes, is now playing a key role for Connecticut. In Game 2, the Sun’s lone win of the series thus far, she finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. In Game 3 – her fifth game back this season – she came off the bench to score 18 points (including eight straight in a critical fourth-quarter stretch) to keep Connecticut in a position to win the game. In a win-or-go-home Game 4, Thomas looks bound to play an even bigger role. The Sun need “playoff AT” now even if they weren’t sure they were going to have her at all just a couple of weeks ago.

Azura Stevens, Chicago. In Game 3, Stevens, the fourth-year center from the University of Connecticut, finished with a game-high 11 rebounds, seven of those on the offensive glass, and contributed 15 points for her second double-double of the season. That is the kind of effort that Chicago needs to counter Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones inside for Connecticut.

Stevens, who played a total of 22 games in 2019 and 2020, had knee surgery last November and has been getting progressively stronger and more confident, a peak that is coming at just the right time for Chicago. She has scored in double figures in three of Chicago’s five postseason games so far, providing another critical offensive option.

“Azura is growing before our eyes,” Sky coach James Wade said after Sunday’s win. “She’s able to do a lot of things and be disruptive.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.