Guess which team has the best field goal defense in the entire WNBA. The Phoenix Mercury, who are holding opponents to only 40.7% shooting, that's who.
It's a stat the surprised GM Ann Meyers-Drysdale when I dropped it on her and Coach Gaines harrumphed it as well.
"Uh, yeah. Everything is opposite. Probably when we start winning everything is going to switch. It's funny that way," said Gaines who hasn't changed his approach and still believes that his team's defense is fueled by it's offense and not the other way around like most teams.
Interestingly enough, the Mercury (2-3) so far has looked better defensively despite facing problems on the offensive end of the floor. The pace is still there but the efficiency is not. Instead of getting easy looks in transition and executing into open shots in the half court, the Mercury is very much a team still trying to find themselves as evidenced by the high turnover rate (19/gm) and the poor shooting (41.1%).
The difficulty transitioning from Cappie to Candice isn't a surprise and according to Coach Gaines is one of a number of factors the defending champs are dealing with.
"It's a different team," Gaines said. "You have to coach it differently, you have to make play calls differently which is up to me. I have to figure the right way how to scheme something, how to get all the players their shots in different ways and it's a learning experience on me too."
Corey was also quick to point out all the other teams that are struggling and how impactful the transition from long European seasons is for players who don't have time to mentally recover from deep playoff runs.
Both the Mercury and Fever (also 2-3) had key players who dealt with that while the Storm and Dream, the two hottest teams to the start the season, were able to rest their players more before the start of the WNBA season.
Coach Gaines also talked about the difficulty playing with a target on your back in a season where the goal is to repeat as opposed to being the underdog.
Diana Taurasi has a more straight forward response to the early season struggles, "At one point you just have to knock them down. We have to step up and knock down shots as individuals and as a team."
Both Taurasi and Penny Taylor have talked about not doing the little things well like setting and using screens which is really a matter of focus. The energy might be there, the effort and desire as well, but for whatever reason the team hasn't been mentally sharp which ties back to what Gaines talked about regarding the lack of a mental break between the European season and this one.
But this is a no-excuses team and Taurasi's approach to fixing the problem is simple and direct as her approach to everything else, "It's this attitude we have to get from tip-off, for lack of a better word, pissed off at the beginning of the game and not waiting to be down 15. It's easy to play when you are down 15. When you're down 15 you really don't have anything to lose."
There's no sense of panic or even concern at this point. Partly because the rest of the teams (other than Seattle and Atlanta) are also off to slow starts.
Mostly though, Gaines is happy with the effort and determination he sees even in the losses, "If we were down 17 and I looked at my players eyes and they were defeated - I didn't see that...If they were like, 'we lost another one', that's when I would say, 'oh boy, now I'm in trouble'. But that's not the case. They're fighters as you saw. We haven't played well but they still fought."
Next Up Sparks, and then some
With Friday's second home game against the Sparks of the season, the Mercury start a stretch of five games in nine days including a road trip to Seattle and LA. Perhaps that every other day schedule will wake the team up and create a rhythm that's been missing.
There isn't too much time left to right the ship especially with another game against Seattle.
"We know what we have to do. We know home-court advantage is important. Seattle is by no means out of reach," Gaines explained. "I am pretty sure it's going to be a tight compact league this year and every year there's nobody that just runs away with it. They take off fast and they come back to the pack."
That's fine for him to say now, but if the Mercury come off their next five game stretch with another loss to the Storm and another 2 and 3 record, that hole will be very difficult to dig out of.
With back-up point guard Ketia Swanier unable to play due to illness, un-drafted rookie Taylor Lilley got her first floor time with the Mercury in their last game against the Lynx - and she looked darn good to me. Lilley was confident, energetic and aggressive without being out-of-control.
Gaines agreed, "I would say if I was a by-stander, why isn't the coach playing her more."
According to Gaines she got two loose 50/50 balls by going into a group of players and coming out with it. Lilley missed her first shot attempt but hit a big three at the end of the period on a play Gaines called for her. Most impressive though was her no fear attitude. She's a baller which is exactly what you need coming off the bench.
Diana Taurasi on the World Cup
Taurasi of course, is pulling for her home country Argentina in the World Cup. A huge "futbol" fan, Taurasi's team is blessed with the best player in the world - who some consider top five all time - Lionel Messi.
The Argentinian National team is coached by another legend, Diego Maradona. Most soccer experts aren't sold on his coaching prowess and worry about his history of erratic behavior but as Taurasi explains, he's a national hero and, "we always take the good and bad from him."
Asked if Messi can win the tournament on his own, she wasn't so sure. She explained that he seems to struggle on the national team while on his club team, Barcelona he's got some of the greatest set up guys in the world getting him the ball 15 yards from the goal. On the national team he gets the ball at mid-field and has to go through 4 or 5 defenders.
"I think Argentina does have the team to win but think these European teams are always built to win. They sit back there and play ugly football for 85 minutes and then some big Dutch guy will come and head it in. And Italy is actually always built for the World Cup, which is my runner up."
And what about Argentina's South American rival?
"Nah, Brazil and they're dancing ways, they'll dance back to South America. I'm not worried about them."
Taurasi is always confident.