In an interview with ESPN’s LaChina Robinson after Saturday’s All-Star Game, Phoenix Mercury All-Star center Brittney Griner emphasized that her squad’s “fighting” spirit had allowed them to remain in the playoff picture even as they dealt with injuries to key players during the first half of the season.
However, to outside observers, Griner and the Mercury have appeared to lack the requisite fight. While Griner and fellow All-Star DeWanna Bonner have posted solid numbers, sitting No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in points per game, respectively, their scoring prowess has not converted into consistent, winning basketball. Griner admitted as much, noting that her team needs to “start games stronger.”
Phoenix began to approach its potential just before the All-Star break although two consecutive wins against Dallas and a victory over Indiana does not provide the best barometer of the team’s championship viability.
Validating and maintaining this momentum will require the “fight” of which Griner spoke. Instead of easing back into competitive action against one of the league’s lesser squads, the Mercury travel to D.C. to face the Washington Mystics who also are riding a three-game winning streak. Since Elena Delle Donne returned from a facial injury, the Mystics not only have regained their offensive dominance but stabilized their sagging defense as well. As Delle Donne expressed to ESPN’s Holly Rowe in her post-All-Star Game interview:
We know we can score the ball. We’ve got so many great scorers. We just have to continue to improve defensively. And...improve on our defensive rebounding. If we do that, we’re in really great shape.
During All-Star weekend, the Sky’s Diamond DeShields showed her dynamism by winning the Skills Challenge in comeback fashion and finishing acrobatic layups during the All-Star Game. The weekend also provided evidence of Chicago’s closeness and camaraderie, as Stefanie Dolson, Jantel Lavender, Cheyenne Parker, Gabby Williams, Jamierra Faulkner and Chloe Jackson traveled to Vegas to support DeShields, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. DeShields’ potent ability, Vandersloot’s prescient passing and Quigley’s precise shooting, in combination with the squad’s togetherness, should position them to steal a win in Connecticut and then continue to ascend during the second half of the season.
Of course, the first place Sun will have their say — they are 9-1 at home this season. While All-Stars Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas will aim to punish Chicago inside, the shooting of Shekinna Stricklen is the key to Connecticut’s success. The Sun are undefeated when the newly-crowned Three-Point Shootout champion swishes three or more threes.
Tuesday’s action concludes in Las Vegas with the Aces and Dallas Wings. If the Aces still are recovering from All-Star weekend, the Wings, who had no representatives participate in All-Star festivities, may be able to take advantage and end their five-game losing streak. But if coach Bill Laimbeer lets Point Cambage loose, the Wings better watch out!
Washington Mystics (12-6) vs. Phoenix Mercury (10-8)
When: Tuesday, July 30, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Entertainment and Sports Arena, Washington, DC
How to watch: NBC Sports Washington, Twitter
Keys to the matchup: As referenced above, Delle Donne and the Mystics recognize the importance of improving their defensive rebounding. Washington has grabbed the fewest number of defensive rebounds this season — Phoenix, the second fewest. When it comes to offensive rebounds, the Mercury are last in the league, with the Mystics third to last. Which team will take advantage of the other’s weakness? The ability to end possessions and secure second-chance points will be crucial in a close contest.
Connecticut Sun (13-6) vs. Chicago Sky (11-8)
When: Tuesday, July 30, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT
How to watch: NESN+, The U Too, NBA TV, TSN
Keys to the matchup: Who is ready to run? The Sky (13.7%) and Sun (13.6%) are ranked first and second in percentage of fast-break points per game. Yet, because Chicago more frequently turns the ball over, Connecticut may have the fast-break advantage in this matchup. Look for Jasmine Thomas, ranked in the top 10 in steals, to turn the Sky over and hit fast-break threat Alyssa Thomas in transition.
Las Vegas Aces (13-6) vs. Dallas Wings (5-15)
When: Tuesday, July 30, at 10 p.m. ET
Where: Mandalay Bay Events Center
How to watch: MYLVTV, Twitter
Keys to the matchup: In the Aces’ two games without A’ja Wilson, Dearica Hamby has stepped up. Even as she has nearly doubled her minutes and field-goal attempts, she has maintained her offensive efficiency. Hamby also has continued to post a strong defensive rating. Yet, Kayla Thornton may be the type of player who could disrupt her groove. Like Hamby, Thornton plays a gritty, intense game, filling the gaps to make opportune plays on both ends of the floor. Can Thornton make enough hustle plays to keep Dallas in the game? Or will Hamby propel Vegas to a third-straight victory?