Phoenix, AZ — While one could easily be fooled by the Atlanta Dream’s modest 8-8 record and dismal three-point shooting percentage entering tonight’s contest, think again. For the first three quarters of the game, they largely dominated the Mercury thanks to potent offensive production and standout play from Layshia Clarendon and Brittney Sykes.
Unfortunately for the Dream, in typical Diana Taurasi style, the league’s all-time leading scorer was ready to author another ending to the story: one featuring the Mercury’s largest comeback of the year. Her six three-pointers proved to be the difference-maker in a 12-point Mercury comeback and ultimate 89-84 victory over a resilient Atlanta team.
“Get back to playing Mercury basketball really,” Sandy Brondello stated on Phoenix’s ability to erase its deficit. “I just think that we were really flat tonight, didn’t really have any energy, we played slow. Obviously down the stretch we just rode with the players, they played all ten minutes, but I thought that’s what we needed to win, they brought the appropriate energy.”
It was a back and forth affair early as the Dream’s fast pace yielded fast break points and disrupted the Phoenix offense, forcing seven first half Mercury turnovers. Phoenix combatted the Dream’s hot shooting from the perimeter by establishing Brittney Griner inside, which allowed Taurasi to light a fire from outside that would become an unstoppable blaze by game’s end.
During the first half fight for control, Clarendon and Sykes were unquestionably the stars of the night for Atlanta, combining for 24 first half points and ravaging the Phoenix defense in transition. The Dream also connected on 50% of their three-point attempts in the first half—looking nothing like the second to last ranked three-point shooting team in the league.
Taurasi’s clutch pull-up three in the waning seconds of the half resulted in a 46-46 stalemate at halftime.
Early in the third, brilliant play from Clarendon and Bria Holmes successfully stretched Atlanta’s lead to as many as 12 points. While Atlanta held a 67-61 lead at the end of the third quarter, the Dream were unknowingly stepping into a fourth quarter firestorm, otherwise known as the Diana Taurasi Show.
But before Taurasi could live up to her propensity for big shot-making, the Mercury defense had to step up. Increased defensive intensity in the fourth quarter led to stops, and suddenly Phoenix had put together a 10-0 run thanks to an ability to turn defense into offense and Griner’s physical presence on both ends.
“Key thing for us was we made plays when we needed to and got stops when we needed to,” said Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello. “We have to get better, obviously. If we want to beat Minnesota, we have to be better.”
The final five minutes featured ties and lead changes, but the game-changer, Taurasi, hit two cold-blooded three-pointers inside the final 90 seconds. The biggest of which was her sixth dagger of the night with 12 seconds remaining to ice the five-point win for Phoenix.
“It’s a play that we’ve ran pretty often and it’s a tough guard. Obviously when you have BG playing the way she is, if she gets in the way as far as screening, no one’s really helping off her,” Taurasi said. “So she got me open and ‘Mil (Camille Little) gave me a great pass. Thankfully it went because I wasn’t really shooting it well today.”
The credit for tonight’s victory is undoubtedly owed to Taurasi’s six three-pointers and a 28 point, eight rebound performance from Griner that is only adding to her career-best 2017 resume. But the Mercury’s defensive adjustments in the second half completely changed the dynamic.
“We knew that we weren’t playing to our potential, we were just kind of coasting,” said Mercury guard Leilani Mitchell. “So we talked amongst ourselves, especially at halftime that we needed to get back to our game. Which is getting stops defensively, getting out and running, and playing our pace. I think we did a better job in the second half.”
Mitchell’s assessment is accurate. After torching Phoenix for 16 points in the first half, Sykes was held scoreless in the final two quarters. Additionally, active hands in passing lanes resulted in timely steals and eight second half Dream turnovers.
Besides those costly turnovers, Dream head coach Michael Cooper indicated that a 40-29 losing effort on the boards played a key role in their downfall.
“Our defense was working. It was our rebounding,” said Coach Cooper. “You can’t get beat 40-29. It doesn’t matter if they are a good team or a bad team. If you give up 40 rebounds and you’re giving up second and third efforts—and those are turning into three-point shots—that’s what hurts you.”
A positive for Atlanta lies in the rising star power they possess in their rookie Sykes and Clarendon’s ability to set the tone for their entire team. Her 21 points and 10 assists nearly led the Dream over a formidable Phoenix squad.
The Mercury’s three-game home stand will reach a crescendo on Friday as they’ll clash with the league-leading Minnesota Lynx at 10 pm ET. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s road trip takes them to Seattle next to face the Storm on Saturday at 9 pm ET.