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Analysis: Mercury maintained ‘attack mode’ to clinch first win of the season over Aces

Hot three-point shooting from Briann January, team-high scoring from Essence Carson and two double-doubles helped Phoenix to the 86-84 win. Uncharacteristic poor shooting from A’ja Wilson contributed to the Las Vegas Aces’ loss.

WNBA fans on Friday were treated to a battle of the bigs: Brittney Griner (left) versus Liz Cambage (right). The matchup did not disappoint.
Photo by Michael Gonzalez/NBAE via Getty Images

Friday night’s marquee matchup between the Las Vegas Aces and the Phoenix Mercury did not disappoint. The Mercury defended its home court with an 86-84 win to pull even on the season, 1-1. A game that saw eight lead changes and the score tied four times really was a game of streaks and runs, with Vegas being ahead by as many as 12 points during the game and the Mercury by as many as nine.

Trailing with a little more than three minutes left in the first quarter, the Aces went on a 29-8 run that put them up 41-29 over Phoenix. With Diana Taurasi pacing and fidgeting on the sideline, Phoenix issued a counter punch in the form of a 13-2 scoring streak that pulled the Mercury to within one point at the half.

Ultra amplified throughout the game, Aces coach Bill Laimbeer apparently carried that grumpy energy into the locker room because his team opened the third quarter hot, with a 14-5 run that restored the Aces’ double-digit lead. Some jawing between Brittney Griner and Tamera Young underscored the intensity of this regular-season game that felt more like a conference finals and resulted in technical fouls for both.

Liz Cambage made her Aces debut and contributed 13 points and two rebounds in just under 14 minutes off the bench. And it was the Vegas second unit that carried the team, with the bench combining for 38 points while starters Kelsey Plum, Carolyn Swords and A’ja Wilson struggled mightily all game.

Diana Taurasi told Swish Appeal during Final Four weekend in April that Sancho Lyttle was making strides in her recovery from the ACL tear that ended her 2018 season early. Taurasi said Lyttle was doing work on the court but still had a little ways to go. Well, surprise, surprise for Mercury fans that Lyttle eased her way into her first game since suffering the injury on June 30, 2018 in Washington against the Mystics. In her return, Lyttle did big things in 12 minutes, impacting the game from all angles as she is prone to do: two points, five rebounds, one steal and one block.

Phoenix scored six of the last eight points of the game, but some bad decisions by the usually keen DeWanna Bonner sent the Aces to the charity stripe late in the fourth and a last-touch by Bonner gave the Aces the ball to inbound just before the final buzzer. A defensive stand broke up the inbound pass to preserve the 86-84 score for the the win — and a collective sigh of relief from the Talking Stick Resort Arena crowd.

After the game, an ecstatic Brittney Griner, who returned to BG-level intensity in this one, could be seen laughing and twerking on the sideline.

Here are the keys to the Mercury’s win and reasons for the Aces’ loss, plus what’s next for both teams:

Why the Mercury won

Double-digit scoring for all five starters

Phoenix apparently learned from its season-opening loss to the Seattle Storm that DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner can’t do it alone. Once the bench gets going offensively, this more balanced scoring effort — Bonner (12), Griner (18), Essence Carson (20), Yvonne Turner (18), Briann January (16) — will restore some depth to a team that badly needs it.

Remarkable individual performances

Carson’s team-high 20 points was her highest-scoring night in six years, back when she was with the New York Liberty. The 12-year veteran is known for monstrous defensive performances and, boy, did she deliver: five rebounds, two steals, one assist and one blocked shot. Carson did this by shooting a blistering 50 percent from the field and an eye-popping 60 percent from three-point range. She was perfect from the free-throw line, banking all three of her attempts.

January’s 16 points were scored on five made three-pointers, for a perfect 5-of-5 from beyond the arc. And had she not missed one of her free-throw attempts, January would have been a perfect 2-of-2 from the charity stripe. Instead, she’ll have settle for 50 percent in bonus points. That missed free throw is negligible, however, in context of 100 percent shooting from three-point range, 83.3 percent shooting from the field and a team-high plus-15 in plus/minus.

Well-rounded, double double-doubles

To go with her 18 points, Turner also dished 10 assists to make it a double-double. In keeping with the complete-game theme of the night, Turner also recorded three rebounds and two steals.

Bonner, who came close to averaging a double-double in the 2018 season, grabbed 12 boards against the Aces to go with her 12 points. To keep things well-rounded like her court mates, Bonner also recorded four assists, three blocked shots and one steal.

Why the Aces lost

A’ja Wilson: Bad game, injury or other?

Color commentators noted that a usually upbeat Wilson didn’t seem herself at shootaround. Her usual smiles and pumped persona were nowhere to be found in the game either. A sleeve on her usual leg, the other knee was cover in KT Tape. Whether she is battling through injury or illness is unclear. But, for certain, we know the unanimous rookie of the year was not herself: She was at risk of being held to single-digit scoring for the first time in her career. She finished the game with 11 points and got there in the fourth quarter. Wilson shot an abysmal 21.1 percent from the field courtesy of 15 missed shots of 19 attempts.

Overall ineffective shooting

Vegas attempted 13 more shots than Phoenix but made two fewer. The Aces banked just 30 of 76 attempts while the Mercury made 32 of 63 attempts. So this team’s uncharacteristic inefficiency — coupled with the Mercury’s exceptionally high efficiency — resulted in the loss. In terms of individual player effectiveness, Dearica Hamby — part of the bench that helped the Aces keep it close — was the lone standout, with 10 points and six rebounds for a game-high plus-21 in plus/minus.

Some words after the win — Mercury

In their postgame pressers, Essence Carson and Brittney Griner spoke about what they learned from the season-opening loss to the Storm and how they got things back on track against the Aces:

Biggest progress is that we stayed in attack mode. In that Seattle game you saw us take our foot off the gas in the second and third quarter. Then we tried to dig ourselves out of that hole, we came back but wasn’t enough time. We really focused on keeping our foot on the gas. There are going to be ups and downs, momentum is going to change but that’s okay. It comes with basketball.

—Essence Carson

It was a reality check. It was a slap in the face. We weren’t aggressive and everybody else was aggressive. It was an eye opener to what the season could be, which would be very long if we play like that, or it could be very fun. This was a close game and we grinded it out and sometimes you have to do that.

—Brittney Griner

Some words after the loss

Aces coach Bill Laimbeer discussed the team’s lack of offensive execution and A’ja Wilson’s poor performance:

We didn’t execute. I made it very clear after the game, that’s why we lost the game. We didn’t execute on offense or defense in our starting lineup. It happens. It’s the worst game I’ve seen A’ja (A’ja Wilson) play in her entire career, but that happens also. But the execution should always be a constant and we didn’t do it.

Next up

Las Vegas Aces

The Aces get a chance to redeem themselves on Sunday, June 2, at home against a scorching Connecticut Sun team that had its bid for a third-straight win to start the season stymied last night against the Sparks in Los Angeles. They, too, will be looking to avenge a Friday night loss, so expect another physical matchup. With the Aces stacked and deep, if they can find a rhythm, they can win. They will, of course, have to contend with a surging Jonquel Jones who pulled down 22 rebounds in the Sun’s Friday night loss.

How to watch: WNBA League Pass (national); MYLVTV and NESN (local markets).

Phoenix Mercury

The Mercury have six days off before facing a ferocious new-look Minnesota Lynx team on Thursday, June 6, on the road. The Lynx are 2-0 to start the season behind Napheesa Collier’s 27-point rookie debut and consistent guard performances in both games from starters Odyssey Sims and Danielle Robinson, plus Lexie Brown off the bench. A young, active squad could present some challenges for the Mercury if they slump in efficiency. But if Phoenix can find a way to fix its biggest shortcoming — second-chance points — their experience could trump youth.

How to watch: WNBA League Pass (national); Fox Sports North Plus and Fox Sports Arizona (local markets).