-- PHOENIX -- Diana Taurasi has always resided in basketball's penthouse. Yet she practices and plays as if she's a tenement-dweller worried about impending eviction.
She has piled up championships and secured her place among the all-time greats. But she also thinks she came close to having the game taken away from her twice in the past five years.
As she pursues her third WNBA title with Phoenix, Taurasi at age 32 is as fascinating, riveting, and mesmerizing as ever.
"I'm a Diana Taurasi fan, except when we play her," said Chicago coach Pokey Chatman, whose team will indeed face Taurasi and Phoenix in the WNBA Finals starting Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) in Arizona.
"I had the privilege of coaching her for two years in Russia. She's phenomenal. This is not second-hand that I'm hearing from people; I got to witness it first-hand. She's the glue. She's everything there."
At US Airways Center, there's a giant mural of Taurasi and her fellow starters, larger-than-life-size, all wearing their very serious game faces. Taurasi, though, can seem larger than life even in person.
"She's a player who rises to a challenge," said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, whose Lynx lost the Western Conference finals to Phoenix. "I think the hardest thing to play against is someone who has such a strong will to win as a player.
"And she has that knack for being one of the greatest shotmakers of all time under pressure. When they do that survey of the GMs and ask, 'Who would you want taking the last shot?' there's a reason they're all going to say 'Diana Taurasi.'"
It would be a mistake to think that's just a high-grade mixture of talent and confidence ... although it is that. But there's something else as important: Taurasi is very savvy about working on any perceived weakness.
"I don't think she has any, but she always finds something," Mercury teammate Penny Taylor said.
In the 10 years since she left UConn as a three-time NCAA champion, Taurasi has fine-tuned every aspect of being a pro basketball player. Defense, footwork, fitness, shot selection, strength training, video study, motivation, leadership.
However, her humor, her edginess, her demonstrative nature on court, her constant "dialogue" with the officials, her general "Taurasi-ness" -- all that can obscure the workhorse side of her. That's generally not something she even talks about. She very rarely makes it sound as if playing basketball for a living actually is work.
She doesn't seem to mind if people think she's just a carefree hoops savant who relies on letting her inner swashbuckler come out on court. The reality, though, is Taurasi has made so many clutch plays and won so many key games because she has done the necessary labor.
That commitment to the maintenance of being a great player comes not just because Taurasi loves excelling at the "showtime" part of basketball. It's also because she still feels a constant need to keep proving herself.
"I just have this inner insecurity that I'm never good enough," she said.
Taurasi made this statement after getting 31 points, seven assists and five rebounds to lead the Mercury's clinching victory Tuesday over the Lynx. And also after hitting a shot from beyond half court at the third-quarter buzzer that took the remaining wind out of Minnesota's sails.
Never good enough? Seriously?
"I missed three free throws tonight," Taurasi said. "Those are going to kill me until I get back into the gym and make a hundred."
The gym is where she has always been happiest. Sure, in those early days a million years ago at UConn, during her freshman season, there were times she dreaded going to practice. She thought she was being put in position to fail too often. What was this Geno Auriemma guy trying to do?
But once she understood and fully embraced the high bar of everyday expectation at UConn and beyond, the gym was rarely anything other than her very favorite place. Regardless of where "the gym" was as the years passed and the globe-trotting reality of women's pro basketball became her life.
Taurasi won an Olympic gold medal a few months after her third NCAA title in 2004. In 2007, she won her first WNBA title. Two more Olympic golds came in 2008 and 2012. Another WNBA title in 2009. She has had success overseas as well, and earned a significant salary in Russia and Turkey.
But between the summer of 2009 and now, there were also some really low moments for Taurasi. Things that shook her up and made her have to dig down beyond the glib, devil-may-care surface that had always been her protection.
"Yeah, the DUI and the doping thing," Taurasi said in a blunt way you have to admire, as she doesn't just use euphemisms such as "challenges" or "adversity."
In October 2009, Taurasi pleaded guilty to driving under the influence after having been pulled over that July and serving a day in jail.
"It really made me more careful in life," she said. "It made me look into the mirror and think about what I was doing, and how I wanted the next five or six years to go. I've always had good people around me, but there was something in me then that was driving me the other way. And I didn't want that."
Then, in late 2010, she was accused of having used a banned stimulant and had her contract terminated by her Turkish club. In February 2011, though, she was fully exonerated, as the lab that did the drug test had its reliability and procedures questioned regarding the results of several athletes.
In both situations, Taurasi realized which people in her life had her back in good times and bad. And she became even more committed to maximizing her skills and winning another title in Phoenix.
The 2012 season, though, was painful for Taurasi and controversial for the Mercury franchise. With various injuries and ailments, she played in just eight games for Phoenix that season. The Mercury drew the ire of many WNBA fans, who thought they had tanked in order to increase the odds of getting the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.
Then when Phoenix actually did win the lottery, bringing center Brittney Griner to the Mercury, the franchise's critics were even more upset and not inclined to forget.
For her part, Taurasi said the 2012 season was embarrassing because of the team's 7-27 record, the worst in franchise history. But, obviously, she was happy to get Griner as teammate, and embraced mentoring her even though they play different positions. Now they are trying to win a championship together.
"We have so much respect for each other," Taurasi said of Griner. "She plays hard for my sake, I play hard for hers. That's why it's been such a good relationship with her even this early in her career. When she came in, I really didn't know her as a person, but the synergy together has been great."
During this regular season, Taurasi led the Mercury with 16.2 points and 5.6 assists. Griner was second on the team in scoring at 15.6 ppg, and averaged nearly four blocks a game.
In the five postseason games, Taurasi is at 22.8 ppg, while Griner is at 17.2. Griner talks appreciatively about how much Taurasi has helped her.
Now, WNBA Finals, here comes Taurasi again.
"I really do love the games," Taurasi said. "And I love trying to get better every year. I even love getting older, and knowing maybe I can't do one thing as well, but then trying to figure out how to do something else. That inner drive, I have it every day."