Although the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm’s first meeting of the season came with both teams at much less than full strength, the payoff of a close game was still there, as the Mercury escaped with the 87-84 preseason victory.
With Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi the most notable absences of the evening, this matchup was a good opportunity to see how each of these top-tier teams is beginning to figure out how to play without their biggest stars. Several rookies shone on both sides as well, a bittersweet thing to see for two teams without much room for new players.
Here are our five main takeaways from last night’s contest:
Storm get first glimpse of life without Breanna Stewart
The two main areas of concern for the Storm with Stewart out for the year — areas where she led the team last season — are points and rebounds. So naturally, anyone looking to replace Stewart should be consistently proficient in those areas.
Last night, Crystal Langhorne and Mercedes Russell both made their cases for a starting job in the Storm’s frontcourt. Langhorne got the start at center and finished with seven points and seven rebounds. But it was Russell who stole the show off the bench, contributing 15 points as well as seven rebounds of her own.
That said, the starkest difference between Langhorne and Russell was experience, namely in personal fouls: While the veteran Langhorne didn’t pick up a foul in her 14 minutes of play, Russell’s 18 minutes saw her accrue four of them.
Both players will have an impact in the frontcourt this season, but no matter what, it’s going to be a tall order to try to do what Stewart could.
Likewise, the Mercury are still experimenting at Diana Taurasi’s position
Though Taurasi won’t be out for the entire season, finding a player to fill the hole she’ll leave in the backcourt is going to be a similarly difficult task for another elite team. The good news? Both options so far are familiar faces.
In Phoenix’s May 11 game against Los Angeles, Leilani Mitchell got the start at point guard, with Briann January starting alongside her. Last night, it was January who took the reins while Mitchell started on the bench. Both seasoned veterans, January was a starter for the Mercury last season, while Mitchell had the distinction of being the starting point guard during Taurasi’s 2015 absence.
As expanded upon below, Phoenix also needs another scorer with Taurasi out. Mitchell stayed consistent, scoring-wise, with seven points on Saturday and eight points last night. Meanwhile, January didn’t take a single shot from the field on Saturday and was held scoreless last night. Head coach Sandy Brondello will eventually need to decide which aspects of Taurasi’s game she needs most on the floor in the All-Star’s absence.
The Brittney Griner-DeWanna Bonner tandem still works
Last season, the Mercury were known for their deadly trio of scorers: Taurasi, Griner and Bonner. Taurasi remains out of the picture for another several weeks, but Griner and Bonner have maintained their scoring contributions.
With two players on each team hitting the 15-point mark last night, it should have been no surprise to see that Phoenix’s two top scorers were Griner and Bonner. It’s a good sign at this stage to see the team’s mainstays combining for big numbers, even if the two are still working up to their 37.8-point combined average from last season.
Seattle’s cuts could be other teams’ big gains
It’s widely accepted that the Storm will be the most difficult team for rookies to make this season, as the defending champions are returning 10 players from last year’s squad and acquired Shavonte Zellous from the Liberty. But with only six of those players in the game last night, the rookies got a chance to show their stuff — perhaps more so to other teams that might be interested in claiming them off waivers.
Receé Caldwell led the charge off the bench, scoring 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting and dishing four assists. Presley Hudson added nine points, all coming off three-pointers. Meanwhile, Teana Muldrow added five points and two rebounds, while Zykera Rice had two points, three rebounds and two steals.
No. 24 draft pick Anriel Howard had a tough debut, getting the starting nod but only managing two points in 19 minutes while racking up three personal fouls.
Stay hot, Alanna Smith and Sophie Cunningham
Smith’s first career outing on May 11 was an impressively well-rounded one: five points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocked shots. Last night, in about five fewer minutes, Smith scored 11 points while still getting on the board in every other category, adding four rebounds, an assist, a steal and two blocks.
Cunningham, on the other hand, stayed consistent in her scoring, with nine points last night compared to 10 in her debut. Like Smith, she found herself in the box score in four other areas, grabbing a rebound, an assist, a steal and a block. Importantly, though, in five fewer minutes, Cunningham lowered her foul total from Saturday from five to just one.
Although Phoenix doesn’t have much roster space themselves, both Smith and Cunningham are continuing to make a strong case to stay in the hunt for a spot on the team.