All it took was five minutes in the Phoenix Mercury-Washington Mystics game for Diana Taurasi to start with the escapades that have become ever more prevalent in the latter half of her career.
Ariel Atkins was rotating toward Taurasi on a defensive possession, taking off an attacking lane. Taurasi then lowered a shoulder into Atkins's chest knocking her to the court. On the way down, the back of her head would hit Elena Delle Donne's knee and Atkins would remain on the court for a time.
Atkins would return after a brief evaluation period on the bench. But, that play set the tone for a physical game for the rest of the night. No one can instigate opponents in the WNBA better than Taurasi. No team is better at building off her shenanigans than the Phoenix Mercury.
On Thursday night, the Mystics were simply their latest victim. Phoenix won 80-75, but the results were far from the narrative of this contest.
Myisha Hines-Allen and Sophie Cunningham would get into an altercation. Taurasi would shove another Mystics player down on the hardwood. Even Delle Donne was awarded a technical after Skylar Diggins-Smith tied her up, although both technicals on the play would end up being rescinded.
The game was marred and far from the typical flow of a contest. Still, head coach Mike Thibault says that was no excuse for the end result.
"Well if you're a good player you should be able to (stay in the game mentally)," Thibault said postgame. "I thought a couple people - not going to name names - when all that stuff started, there's a history there, Phoenix players who understand that's part of getting under people's skins in pro basketball."
The Cunningham and Hines-Allen spat really escalated already high tensions. Cunningham tried to kick her legs out to get a foul on a 3-point attempt. It naturally caused Cunningham to fall to the ground, when Hines-Allen stepped over her to run the fastbreak.
Typically perceived as a sign of disrespect (stepping over another player), Cunningham grabbed Hines-Allen and the two immediately got in each other's faces. Players would end up being separated and both received technicals.
"That's going to be like the playoffs. Playoffs are physical and chippy and all of that. We said to our players early on, 'you can't do this game with them, that's not what you want, just play,'" Thibault said.
"Yeah, we don't want to play into their antics but I don't think that's what caused us to spiral downhill," Hines-Allen said.
Those weren't the only instances, though. The second incident involving Taurasi not only forced Alysha Clark to the ground, but took out her own teammate Cunningham in the process.
And this is coming all on the heels of Taurasi kicking Sylvia Fowles in the Mercury's last contest. A review of the play by the league office will reportedly assess a flagrant foul 2.
Beyond the on-court theatrics, the 18-year veteran dropped a game-high 29 points to lead the Mercury to a much-needed win. Phoenix has struggled without Brittney Griner this season and big offseason signing Tina Charles left the team in the middle of the season to join the Seattle Storm.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed on a hard foul by Diggins-Smith on Delle Donne. After the way this contest was going, things could have turned quickly.
When asked if Thibault would speak to the league office after everything that transpired in the game, he said would not address it.
"I'm not commenting on that. That's between me and the league. I like my money," he said.
The loss drops Washington to 15-11 on the season as they wrapped a brief West Coast road trip. The Mystics sit fifth in the standings, just four games back of the No. 1 seed.
That game gave Phoenix the season series and a playoff tiebreaker, if necessary. If they were to meet again, it would be in the WNBA Playoffs.
"I don't think they got under our skin, to be honest with you. That's just the way that they are, that's the way that they play. You saw what you saw, some calls probably should have been made, some calls probably weren't. It just is what it is," Atkins said.