Diana Taurasi didn’t get to be the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) without acquiring keen sensibilities and a heck of a lot of wisdom. When I spoke to Taurasi before the season, she had this to say about what it takes for a team to win it all:
I’ve said it a lot, where you go into a training camp and all you talk about is championships and you forget to do all the work and the next thing you know, you lose in the semifinals.
Those comments, of course, came after Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury were swept in the best-of-five semifinals by the LA Sparks in 2017. But the team’s intimate familiarity with winding up on the wrong side of a postseason sweep goes back even further. In the last five seasons, the Mercury also were swept in the semifinals by the Minnesota Lynx in 2016, the best-of-three Western Conference Finals in 2015 (also by the Lynx) and in the Western Conference Finals in 2013 under then-head coach Corey Gaines (by the Lynx again).
The Mercury won the WNBA Championship in 2014.
No Lynx in the playoffs, so no problem?
Not so fast. The Mercury find themselves heading into Game 3 of the 2018 semifinals against the Seattle Storm down 2-0, on the brink of another heartbreaking postseason elimination by sweep.
In my interview, Taurasi championed the title-contending roster assembled by GM Pitman and stated that titles should be talked about. However, she wrapped those words in paper marked CAUTION. “[Winning championships] only happens when you do the work,” said Taurasi. “When you show up every single day ready to play, and ready to compete, respecting your opponents.”
GOATs are intrinsically motivated to improve; they are comfortable critiquing their individual performance and their team’s performance. So even Taurasi — no, especially Taurasi — would be first to say the Phoenix Mercury have not accomplished the work of showing up ready to play, ready to compete, with respect for their opponents.
And The Chase, the team’s docuseries of the Mercury’s season, proves as much.
The Chase is a team-produced docuseries that shows the behind-the-scenes workings of the team, including interviews with most of the top players, Head Coach Sandy Brondello, General Manager Jim Pitman and an intriguing look into the vital work of Equipment Manager Denise Romero. In practices, shootarounds, airports, buses, the GM’s office, coach’s meetings, locker rooms — a baseball diamond, a children’s museum and a July 4 barbecue — fans get a 10-minutes-per-episode glimpse into the grind of a WNBA team.
But the locker room speeches from Brondello, and from Taurasi, reveal a lot about why the Mercury find themselves down 2-0 in the semifinals again, and it’s not because Sancho Lyttle went down with injury. The issues were identified well before Lyttle suffered an ACL tear on June 30. And, given the team’s postseason struggles historically, problems likely were identified well before the 2018 season.
But the Mercury enjoyed a phenomenal eight-game winning streak this season, from June 1 through June 17. Old foe Minnesota Lynx snapped it, however, winning 83-72 on June 22 in Phoenix. But it wasn’t just that the Lynx exited the desert with the victory; it’s that the Mercury’s faults made it easy for the Lynx to get that win. A review of that game and others, and various locker room speeches, explain completely why the Mercury are in this mess — and, therefore, how they can find their way to a Game 3 win against Seattle.
5 things the Mercury must do to keep The Chase for another championship alive
#1. Clamp down defensively on the opposing team’s best shooter and never let up. The Lynx got the June 22 win because the Mercury’s defense was lax, allowing Maya Moore to do Maya Moore-type things. In the locker room at halftime, Diana Taurasi said, “Do not leave Maya! She’s the best scorer on their team. I don’t care if [Cecilia] Zandalasini has a hundred. Do not leave Maya! Do. not. leave. her.”
Replace Maya with Breanna and there goes the chief advice for containing Seattle in Game 3. Sure, that leaves Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd who also can light it up on any given night. But Stewart’s ability to battle with Brittney Griner in the paint and score from midrange and deep make her the bigger threat, so she is the one who must be denied.
#2. Come with energy, a strong sense of urgency and belief that they can win. During half time of the same game, Brondello shouted: “We weren’t ready to play! We weren’t ready to play! There was no sense of urgency. There was no energy. Our oldest player (pointing to Taurasi) is the one that plays the hardest. That was our worst 20 minutes of the year! Our activity has to be picked up. We can do it, but we have to believe that we can do it.”
This theme of energy and readiness for competition was not confined to that game against the Lynx on June 22; the Mercury also lost on June 24 against the Sky in Chicago. In the locker room on June 26, with Phoenix hoping to avoid a third-straight loss at the hands of the Liberty in New York, Brondello identified the team’s “energy and effort” as problematic. “Some of you have [been bringing it], some of you haven’t,” said Brondello. “We need everyone playing at their best.”
Sadly, the player who needs to bring energy, effort and aggression the most — Brittney Griner — simply may not have it after her championship-winning postseason with UMMC Ekaterinburg in EuroLeague overlapped the start of the WNBA season. Just like her Ekat teammate Maya Moore, whose Lynx suffered a first-round elimination to the Sparks, Griner hasn’t looked like herself for much of the 2018 WNBA season.
By contrast, Taurasi — the spry one on the Mercury team — retired from international play and started the season in the best shape of her life. So, while many may leap to the conclusion that a lack of energy and effort is code for laziness, sometimes a truly fatigued body just won’t do the bidding of the mind, and the year-round competition is bound to catch up with even the best and best-conditioned athletes, like Griner and Moore. Still, the Mercury’s season will not continue unless Griner finds energy from somewhere — even if it means trading her favored bacon and candy for the vegan vittles Taurasi eats.
As for belief, Phoenix is clearly lacking it right now, and not being saved by Taurasi’s comeback heroics in Game 2 should be considered a threat to their ability to muster any. If they feel hopeless heading into Game 3, the Mercury’s season is over. But if they harness the knowledge that the Storm won each of the first two games of the series by just four points despite the Mercury only showing up to compete in the fourth quarters of those games, they should feel confident that if they compete for 40 minutes they can win handily.
#3. Allow Griner to establish position in the paint before throwing it in to her. Brondello gave this instruction to her team ahead of the Mercury’s June 29 contest against the Fever in Indiana. “Wait for BG to get down low and get set before giving her the ball,” Brondello said. “Help her establish position first.” And it worked. Griner’s 20 points helped the Mercury get the 95-77 win over Indiana in that game.
#4. Avoid double-digit deficits, especially in the first half. The Mercury have relied on late-game theatrics to pull themselves back into games and, at least against the Sun in the second round, get the win. But the Mercury cannot expect a risky, adrenaline-chasing style of play built on late-game heroics to be effective against a team as disciplined as the Seattle Storm. It has not been effective, the holes have been too deep, and late-game GOATness from Taurasi has not been enough to pull them out of said holes.
After Game 2, Brondello said she was “very, very disappointed” by the loss. “We dug ourselves a big hole again,” Brondello continued. “We were very resilient getting back into the game and finally made some three-point shots. It took us until the last 20 seconds at the end to make them, but it’s a game that we should’ve won.”
For things to be different in Game 3, a player not named Diana Taurasi needs to come up with five additional points that they did not score in either of the first two games. More importantly, the Mercury must keep it close and not be down by double figures heading into halftime. Better still, a halftime lead would do more to break the pattern they’ve been in, by fueling their confidence and instilling some doubt into the minds of the Storm players.
#5. Stay out of foul trouble. Frustrated, tentative play is a magnet for foul trouble whereas confident, aggressive play is a repellent. So far, the Mercury seem to be playing not to lose rather than playing to win, which shows up most prominently in the personal fouls column of the box score. In Game 2, Griner fouled out with six fouls, while Taurasi and Angel Robinson picked up five fouls apiece; Griner picked up five fouls in Game 1. To avoid a repeat of this kind of foul trouble in Game 3, Griner must establish herself in the paint early, with the kind of intimidating aggression fans are used to seeing from her. As for Taurasi, it might be a good idea to channel the fire through the basketball and into the bucket only, rather than letting bad calls by the officiating team become a distraction.
Next up on the court ...
The 2018 WNBA Semifinals have moved from Seattle and Atlanta to Washington, DC and Phoenix, respectively, for Game 3s on Friday, August 31. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. ET on NBA TV.
The Mystics-Dream series is split at 1-1, while the Storm have a 2-0 lead over the Mercury.
Here are your previews from Christine M. Hopkins.
Scorching the status quo
ESPN reported significant increases in viewership of the WNBA Semifinals on ESPN2. Yay!
Now, if this can happen on the steam of fans and dedicated WNBA-market outlets covering the league, imagine how those numbers might soar if ESPN added pregame and postgame programming to its coverage of the league, along with some SportsCenter replays.
Drink up, link lush!
Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns is supporting his sister team, the Mercury, with cold, hard cash. Booker purchased 500 tickets for Game 3, which will be allocated to fans on a first-come, first-served basis. Perhaps a packed house can cheer the Mercury into a Game 3 win, to make it a series against the Seattle Storm. All anyone wants for Christmas — or at any time, because it’s a holiday all its own — is to see a five-game series go five games!
- Matt Ellentuck set the record straight on what players are really asking for in pay disparity talk. Chipping into willful ignorance is a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.
- The camps are split on the Las Vegas Aces winning the No. 1 draft pick for the third year in a row, with some fans calling the lottery system rigged and others cheering for the potential greatness of the Aces. Ellentuck identified an integral piece to Las Vegas’ fortunes in the 2018 lottery: that forfeited game against the Mystics.
- LaChina Robinson takes basketball fans Around the Rim in a discussion on gender equality with the first young women admitted to Stephen Curry’s basketball camp.
How to #WatchThemWork during the 2018 WNBA Playoffs
Shine brighter. * flicker flicker *