The first week of the WNBA season is in the books and there have already been a few power rankings tossed into circulation and many have the Mighty Mercury of the Arizona desert in the peak spot - and rightfully so.
The reigning champion Minnesota Lynx sit at 2-0 as well but of the undefeated teams in the early season, Phoenix has definitely been impressive with wins over the well-coached and veteran Seattle Storm and what is likely the deepest team in the WNBA this season, the Los Angeles Sparks.
Phoenix 81, Seattle 64
In the Seattle game, you could see that the Mercury squad was anxious to shake off the bad taste that was left in the mouth of the organization after being the one team that went 0-2 in the WNBA's inaugural preseason kickoff tournament. The Mercury jumped out to an early 25-11 lead after one quarter and kept the Storm at arm's length for the duration of the game as the Storm was only able to close the gap to 12 once in the second half.
The Mercury's opener was a showcase of the improved quality of players around the core of Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner as the trio combined for only 22 of the 81 point scored. The team was led by sophomore sensation Brittney Griner's 19 points and 5 blocks, 4 of which came before the game was five minutes old, and a combination of 11 points apiece from Bonner and 1st-year Mercury guard Anete Jekabsone-Zogota who hit 3 threes to complete a 4-4 shooting night in 17 solid minutes. Although they broke even on the boards with the extremely undersized Storm (sporting only 1 player above 6'2, that being a 27 year old rookie who likely will still get the "rookie treatment" from veteran stickler Brian Agler) and committed 15 turnovers against a disjointed and sloppy Storm team, the Mercury controlled this game from start to finish in what ended up being a 81-64 victory.
Yet it'd be foolish to think that no one was looking ahead to the Western Conference first round rematch between the Merc and rival Los Angeles Sparks as the first marquee matchup of the season; especially considering the Lynx have so many key players missing.
Mercury 74, L.A. 69
With the Storm as a nice tuneup for both teams (LA beat the Storm 80-69 a day before the Mercury did) both teams were able to rest most of their key players, with only Parker playing more than 29 minutes in the opener. Also taking this game to the next level was the familiarity of a few players: Sandrine Gruda, Candace Parker, Taurasi, Jekabsone-Zogota, and back-up post Ewelina Kobryn all played for the loaded UMMC team coached by Sandy Brondello in Russia.
Potential takeaways from this game did come down a couple notches when it was announced that Nneka Ogwumike, who has given Phoenix trouble since she came into the league, was out with a back injury and later joined by backup point guard and "spark" off the bench Candice Wiggins who was held out as well. That didn't take away from the game itself though: after a sloppy first half of feeling each other's new additions and schemes out, the second half didn't disappoint.
LA went into the half with a one point lead after Parker hit with 2.7 left in the second quarter. The teams came out of the half and cranked up the "bucket-getting" in a third quarter that included 11 lead changes, saw the largest lead by either team be 3 points and ending with Phoenix up 51-50 after outscoring LA 22-20. The Mercury were led by Bonner and Taurasi, who took over the quarter for the last three minutes and combined to score 12 points.
After battling and staying within three points of each other for most of the fourth quarter, coach Brondello - a former assistant of Carol Ross' initial staff in LA - took a timeout with 4:30 left in the game after the Sparks' lead grew to five on back-to-back buckets from Parker and Lindsey Harding. After continuing to go back and forth for another minute, Phoenix went into win-mode.
Griner cut the lead to three with a layup late in the shot clock and turned Gruda away at the other end after the Mercury forced a shot clock violation on the possession prior. Dupree was fouled by Harding and hit both free throws to cut the lead to 1, from there the Sparks would only score three points, all on Parker free throws as Phoenix finished the game on a 15-5 run to come away with a 74-69 and take the team to 2-0 for only the fourth time in team history.
Mercury coaching staff impressive in first two games
I've been thoroughly impressed with Brondello's ability to make adjustments and control the game from the sidelines. She thoroughly out-coached Ross during crunch time of the LA game and seems to have a much greater chemistry with Phillips than one would've imagined. As my eyes stay with the point guards during out-of-bounds and free throw situations, the Aussies are usually exchanging eye contact and hand signals. Pulling the zone out against LA was definitely a risk worth taking, especially when LA went to the bigger lineup with Parker, Gruda and Lavender. I wondered what Sandy would be capable without being in Olaf's shadow (or vice versa) and so far, I'm happy with what I've seen.