|ESPN.com: WNBA||[Print without images]|
BRISTOL, Conn. -- No player in the world is better qualified to formulate a plan for stopping Sue Bird than her former college and current national team and Spartak Moscow teammate.
"Probably a bat and her knees," Diana Taurasi quipped when both visited the ESPN campus Friday in advance of Saturday's All-Star Game (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Somewhere, University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma is kicking himself for not using the line before his former pupil and verbal sparring partner got to it.
Bird, of the Seattle Storm, and Taurasi, of the Phoenix Mercury, are arguably two of the most recognizable names and faces bridging the league to the mainstream of sports, along with Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie, neither of whom will play in this year's game, Parker after giving birth earlier this year and Leslie after suffering an injury that knocked her out of the West's starting lineup. A majority of sports fans might not be able to tell you who the starting strong safety is for the Seattle Seahawks, but odds are most of them would recognize Bird's and Taurasi's names.
On a weekend that belongs to the stars, they are the two by which many navigate.
And if not unique, their ongoing, concurrent familiarity as teammates and rivals ranks as at least rare. They've won together, a college national championship in 2002 and Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008. They've won separately, Bird with a WNBA championship in 2004 with the Storm and Taurasi three years later with the Mercury. And more recently, they've competed against each other in the United States during the summer and with each other during the winter in Europe.
"In the last seven years, I've probably played more basketball -- she's been my teammate more than anyone else in the world," Taurasi said.
Proximity is a funny thing. Spend enough time around someone, and things begin to blur.
Their paths crossed initially, silently for the first and surely last time in any story that involves her, when Taurasi was a high school junior in Chino, Calif., and went to see Connecticut play at UCLA during the first week of Bird's freshman season. As Taurasi put it, you could tell there was something special in the point guard's game even then. But only in Storrs could she begin to appreciate fully the things Bird could do with the ball or the way she saw the floor, like looking at a slide of a painting and then standing two feet from the original, the brush strokes and colors suddenly jumping off the canvas.
All these years later, past honors and accolades notwithstanding, the best pure point guard in the women's game might be comfortable with that alter ego.
"Now I think she knows how good she is," Taurasi said. "Sue -- and I always tell her -- her weakness is how passive she is sometimes. She has the ability to dominate games, but she's always on the court with some pretty dominant people, so she prefers to kind of be the side part. And I think in the last two or three years, she knows she can take games over single-handedly. And I think she does it more, and she's more confident doing it. And I don't see any reason why she shouldn't do it more."
Bird trails only Cappie Pondexter, Taurasi's teammate and fellow All-Star, in assists per game this season, and at 28, she's playing the heaviest minutes since her rookie season for a team with a limited bench. She has Lauren Jackson and Swin Cash to get the ball to, but in games like the triple-overtime win against the Sparks that carried the Storm into the All-Star break, she was the one who knocked down seven 3-pointers, including three in the third overtime, and didn't turn the ball over in nearly 50 minutes on the court.
It was a display of brazen ownership of a game's outcome on a night when her shot wasn't necessarily falling at will early. In its own way, it was downright Taurasian.
"You get this question asked about a lot of people," Taurasi said of how to contain Bird. "And I think you get to a level where you really can't do much to stop her in a game. You can make things more difficult for her, and even then, sometimes when you make things more difficult for a player, it puts them at a different level. So sometimes you just want to leave them alone and hopefully they don't really feel like doing much that night.
|Diana Taurasi, left, and Sue Bird won an NCAA title together at UConn in 2002 and Olympic gold medals in '04 and '08.|
"She's the type of player where if you push her, she's going to play at a level where it's going to be scary that night."
Which makes it that much more interesting to consider Bird's best advice for the seemingly impossible task of slowing Taurasi, a 6-foot guard who is shooting nearly 44 percent from behind the 3-point line on a league-high seven attempts per game this season and still gets inside enough to rank fifth in free-throw attempts per game.
"One thing you can try to do is get in her head a little bit, try to piss her off," Bird said. "I mean, it's something, I definitely talk to her when we are teammates, just the way she reacts toward refs and things. And that sounds almost cheap-shot-ish, but you've got to go with what works, because otherwise, when she's got it going, it's really hard to stop her. I would just try to put somebody taller on her, make everything hard."
In Bird, Taurasi sees a player who now more willingly allows her talents to take over when passion stirs the monster within. In Taurasi, it's a matter of tempering passion.
Bird said there were only two times she has shared a roster with Taurasi when the latter wasn't the best player on the team -- their freshman year at Connecticut and their first Olympic team in 2004. And even in those situations, Bird suggested it might merely have been as much the case that Taurasi simply wasn't supposed to be the best player.
Those were the moments she saw Taurasi take a supporting role, adapting a game made for the boldest superhero gambits and tweaking it with a watchmaker's precision.
The natural beauty of Bird's game is in the detail of some small object in the foreground. In Taurasi's game, it's the sweep of the landscape painted in the distance.
"As time has gone on, I've obviously played with her overseas, and I see her working on her game," Bird said. "She just gets more and more consistent. The things she does add are so small, but they're so effective. This year, overseas, I know she was working a lot on attacking the basket and it's something that she's so big and strong she can do with ease. And her ball-handling, like a step-back 3, things like that -- those are things she's always had, I feel like, but as her career has gone on in the WNBA, she's really mastered."
How do you stop Bird or Taurasi? What makes the two uniquely qualified to answer that question is also what makes it an increasingly impossible task to accomplish.
Well, unless you want to resort to Taurasi's methods.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.