Coming off a confidence-building rally against the Washington Mystics on Wednesday, the Phoenix Mercury woke up Saturday with a tall task ahead.
Facing the 9-3 Los Angeles Sparks on national television was going to be a battle anyway, but without the four starters from last years team that did return to the team, it would take a valiant effort to keep this game respectable. A valiant effort was exactly what was given.
After a slow start that saw the Sparks jump out to an 8-4 lead, the Mercury settled down and found a rhythm offensively. Couple that with a few good defensive possessions that forced turnovers, and the Merc had a 17-11 lead with about 2:50 remaining. The Sparks were able to get back into sync and close the quarter on a 9-1 run to take a 20-18 lead after one.
With the exception of the Minnesota opener and the loss to LA in the third game of the season back in May, Phoenix has usually been competitive for a major portion of the game, but they tend to have a period of time where baskets are hard to come by. This has consistently been either the second and third quarter and that trend continued last night.
20 seconds into quarter number two, DeWanna Bonner converted a tough layup to tie the game at 20 apiece but after that, the Mercury offense resembled the nearby subtropical deserts of Mojave. The next Merc points - not field goal, but POINTS - came on a Charde Houston jumpshot six minutes later to stop an 18-2 Sparks run to begin the quarter. Combine the first quarter finish with the second quarter struggles, and LA went on a 39-9 run during a stretch of approximately 13 minutes, which blew the doors off this game or so many believed.
At halftime the Sparks were led offensively by their starting backcourt of Alana Beard and Kristi Tolliver, who combined for 24 points in the first half. Of the 26 points that were on the board for Phoenix, Bonner put in 9 and Sammy "Styles P" Prahalis had six.
The second half was a different story. A story that seemed like it might not come to pass watching this team early without the likes of Taurasi and Taylor. It seems that after losing Dupree and Sanford, this group of young women has rallied together and plays with a reckless abandon that could be said to rival the Oklahoma City Thunder of 2008-09. But more on that later.
The third quarter seemed to be the breath of fresh air this team needed. They continued to get the same shots that they got in the first half, but they actually started to fall. And as has been the case in recent years, as the offense goes, so goes the defense.
The intensity on the defensive end picked up, the Merc were communicating and actually working on the defensive end, something that couldn't have been said in years past. Nobody is ever going to call this team a squad of stoppers, but the commitment to at least guarding someone has grown with each game this year.
Nevertheless, every time Phoenix inched closer, LA had an answer. The Mercury got within 19 a few times late in the quarter, but the lead was 20 at the end of three. A key factor in the third, was an ankle injury to Nneka Ogwumike. She was clearly hobbled and for the reasons that were given for Candace Parker being out, one would figure that she shouldn't have played any further. As previously discussed, I think the reason this team stays in contention, will be the play of Ogwumike. The intangibles that Ogwumike brings to the table, including the fact that she plays every play like it's her last, has saved this team several times already this season. This will have to continue for them to challenge Minnesota in the West, unless this team grows up and realizes that the games aren't decided on paper.
The fourth quarter began with a tough jumper from Sparks forward Delisha Milton-Jones but after that the Sparks offense stalled while the Mercury seemed to start to figure it out. They scored on the first four possessions of the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 14, prompting a timeout from Carol Ross with 7:15 remaining. The run continued after the timeout as the Sparks turned the ball over on a rarely called but constantly occurring Milton-Jones elbow. Bonner split a pair of free throws, which led to a Warley offensive rebound although she couldn't convert. Kristi Tolliver hit one of her patented pull up jumpers in transition, but from there the Mercury went to work.
Another Marissa Coleman foul sent DB back to the line where she made both shots. After a layup deep into the shot clock from Beard, Sammy P scored on a drive while getting hit, without a call being made. Krystal Thomas came up with a block on Coleman on solid defensive rotation which allowed Prahalis to leak out for an easy lay-in.
Now, I wasn't a big Prahalis fan during her college days, but you never could doubt her ability to make things happen for her team. She sees the floor well, has that tight New York City handle that we see lead to great careers on both the male and the female side, and she can flat out score if you need her to. But the kid has matured since college, and has improved with every game.
Early in the year, she did a lot of standing at the top of the key pounding the ball into the floor. Now she's attacking more off the dribble which has opened up the floor for the struggling Mercury. If she continues to attack, it will make things even easier for this team. Especially considering that Candice Dupree hasn't really had success creating her own shot, she's more effective cutting off the weak side and knocking down mid-range jumpers off penetration.
LA made free throws down the stretch to close out this game with a final score of 93-84 but this Mercury team seems to be figuring things out. Though it may not make a huge difference this season, I, as a Mercury fan, feel great. I said early-on after gaining knowledge of the Taurasi injury that the confidence and maturity that this team will gain having to play heavy minutes nightly will be of great benefit next season. The players on this team have too much pride to tank. They will continue to play hard and still could end up with a high draft pick, which would be an amazing position to be in.
There's a chance this team will still be in contention once Taurasi returns after the Olympic break, but LA and Minnesota won't be caught, Seattle seems to be figuring it out without Lauren Jackson and will also be getting better once Abrosimova signs, and San Antonio is old reliable - they will get it done, especially as they gain confidence with a much more balanced starting lineup than what they began the season with.
Earlier I alluded to the Thunder team of 2008-09. Anyone that TRULY likes and supports the Thunder remembers this season. It was the first year they played in Oklahoma and the talent just wasn't there outside of Durant, Westbrook, and Jeff Green. Each had good seasons, but it was apparent that they were a couple pieces away. Flash ahead to 2009-10 and you add James Harden in the draft, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor, along with the improvement and added confidence of the core of Sefalosha, Durant, Westbrook and Jeff Green and that team made a jump to 50 wins and a playoff berth.
In the WNBA, there's not 16 teams in the playoffs so the opportunity to move up the hierarchy is there. Consider next year's roster as I currently envision it:
Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree, Samantha Prahalis, Alexis Gray-Lawson, Alexis Hornbuckle, Charde Houston, Krystal Thomas, Avery Warley, and Elena Delle Donne.
That team has a chance to compete for a championship for the next 5-8 years solely on the fact that the improvement of the likes of Bonner, Prahalis, Gray-Lawson, Thomas and Warley having to play as many minutes as they will this year, Houston and Hornbuckle's confidence growing in having a coach that trusts them and their abilities to contribute and being able to drop Taurasi, Taylor and Dupree's minutes as they get older, which could lengthen their careers.
I also feel like unlike years past for the Mercury, this team doesn't seem to have any ego issues. The desire to rack up championships will outweigh the want of players to rack up numbers. Even if you subtract a player or two, for injuries or whatever the case would happen to be, that core combined with Prahalis and whatever player is added in a deep 2013 draft, this team will improve by leaps and bounds.