Two weeks ago, the Phoenix Mercury submitted one of the worst performances of the WNBA season, a 27-point loss to the Atlanta Dream when the Mercury looked noncompetitive almost from the jump.
It was the team’s fifth consecutive defeat, dropping Phoenix to 2-6 a year after making the WNBA Finals. Brittney Griner’s ongoing detention in Russia (113 days and counting) means that basketball is the least of the Mercury’s concerns, but this is still a proud group that has been embarrassed by its performances thus far. The players know they are capable of better.
This past week, even though Phoenix only went 1-2, the Mercury showed the first signs of a turnaround, that their season might not be as hopeless as that loss to the Dream seemed.
Phoenix started off this three-game stretch with a competitive defeat to the defending champion Sky. The Mercury were up eight in the fourth quarter, boasting a win probability of 86.4 percent with 7:36 to play before only mustering six points the rest of the way. Still, it was the team’s second single-digit loss of the season (out of seven), a step up from a series of blowouts.
Up next came the Connecticut Sun, who were on a back-to-back after beating the Las Vegas Aces the night before. Phoenix was already undersized against the massive Sun without Griner, but were dealt another blow when Tina Charles was ruled out, forcing Sophie Cunningham to start and guard Jonquel Jones for much of the night. The Mercury competed hard in spite of those challenges, this time possessing an 11-point lead with 6:18 to play before the Connecticut size finally wore them down.
“We have not had a lot of things to hang our hat on, but tonight at least there was a resemblance of a team that if things start going our way a little bit we are going to be a scary team down the road,” head coach Vanessa Nygaard said after the loss to the Sun. “We have to start stringing some wins together. I think in Chicago we started building some momentum, it carried over into today. Unfortunately, it did not end in a win.”
The team wouldn’t have to wait much longer for a victory, finally breaking the losing streak and getting into the win column two days later against the Los Angeles Sparks. This time, Phoenix trailed entering the fourth but controlled the final period en route to a seven-point triumph, one that even resulted in the Sparks firing their head coach.
The Mercury are now in 10th place in the league standings, but only one loss out of a playoff spot. Here is what has changed over the last three games to give Phoenix home going forward.
The defense is league average
Throughout the first 11 games, the Mercury’s offense has consistently been about league average. Their defense, however? Phoenix boasted the WNBA’s worst defense through the first eight games before chopping nearly 10 points off its defensive rating in the last three contests.
It’s likely no accident that one of the Mercury’s two worst defenders, Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles, was missing for nearly all of this stretch. Taurasi was ejected after 13 minutes against Chicago, and Charles sat against Connecticut and Los Angeles with a right shoulder injury. Both of them on the floor together gives the opposing team one too many places to attack, but Phoenix has enough defensive talent around the former Huskies to compensate for one poor defender.
Cunningham stepped up for Charles against the Sun, with Curt Miller complimenting her effort post game, saying “Sophie defends us every year inside better than people give her credit for.” The Mercury mixed in some zone to compensate for their lack of size and show bodies in the paint when either of the Jones frontcourt got a touch.
The next time out, Shey Peddy was a standout the Sparks, taking multiple charges on the L.A. guards and adding in a couple of steals (she ranks top 10 in the league in takeaways). The Sparks are a sloppier passing team, and Phoenix took advantage by getting more aggressive and jumping passing lanes, a contrast to the way the team sat back against Connecticut.
The defensive habits are starting to come into place, and once opponent 3-point shooting regresses to the mean (the poor Mercury have already played the Aces three times!), their defense should improve even more, though the loss of Cunningham to an elbow injury will test that theory.
Phoenix is recreating the 2020 bubble formula
For better or worse, this team has recent experience having to play without Griner, when the center left the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Fla. halfway through the schedule. Five rotation players on this year’s roster were part of that team — Taurasi, Cunningham, Peddy, Brianna Turner, and Skylar Diggins-Smith — and they’ve adopted the style that worked down the stretch of the 2020 season. Megan Gustafson fills in for Kia Vaughn, Diamond DeShields for Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, and voilà!
That means four out, one in, with Turner diving to the basket off hard hedges to relieve pressure. She still isn’t a threat to score, but her pinpoint passing is getting the defense in rotation and creating good looks for 3-point shooters.
With only one big, the Mercury are also driving to the basket more often, in particular Diggins-Smith and DeShields. Diggins-Smith has taken more than half of her shots in the paint, using her near-unguardable floater to convert an elite 62.5 percent at the rim, a figure matched by DeShields. Both players are also nightmares in transition, Diggins-Smith with her speed and DeShields with her elevation, allowing Phoenix to turn its newfound defense into offense quickly.
In this sense, the absence of Charles has been a blessing in disguise, as her game has been an awkward fit with the pace of the Mercury’s other best players. Charles likes to post up, but per Synergy Sports via ESPN, she’s shooting 44 percent on post-ups, down from 51 percent in 2021, while taking more post shots than anyone in the league other than Sylvia Fowles. Charles would be better served as a pick-and-pop big, which is what worked for Phoenix against Chicago.
The Mercury are also keeping the ball in their guards’ hands, despite an early-season experiment to give DeShields more playmaking. Unfortunately, DeShields’ efficiency hasn’t warranted that additional usage: per ESPN, her usage rate is a career-high 28 percent while her 47.8 true shooting percentage is well below the league average of 53.2. Meanwhile, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi have been rock solid, with true shooting percentages of 56.6 and 55.6, respectively, while each has a usage of at least 25 percent.
The backcourt stars are heating up
It’s pretty simple sometimes — a team plays well when its best players play well. And with Griner unavailable, that burden falls Diggins-Smith and Taurasi. Diggins-Smith has been mostly consistent, with a slight dip after exiting the health and safety protocols, but Taurasi has really come on of late.
The Mercury have only won in 2022 when Taurasi plays well, and she has finally strung together consecutive good games. She was raining jumpers against Connecticut, draining six threes en route to 32 points. She only hit half as many against L.A., but threw in seven dimes in the process, and even gave a meaningful defensive effort. Taurasi stripped Chiney Ogwumike in the post late in the fourth and drew an over-the-back foul on a subsequent possession by boxing out. She’s essentially playing the 4 on defense, so Phoenix doesn’t need her to move much, but the team does need her to be strong in the post, positionally sound, and smart with her reaches. That’s been happening more consistently.
“There is nothing that she needs to prove at this point, and when she plays, she plays as hard as she can,” Nygaard said about Taurasi after the Sparks win. “She can make things happen; her game has evolved.”
One win in seven days doesn’t erase a seven-game losing streak, and the Mercury have yet to prove that they can successfully integrate Charles or DeShields — DeShields’ play will be especially important without Cunningham. But they at least have a baseline that can keep them in games while the newcomers figure out their place. The Phoenix squad that is taking the floor now is a far tougher out than the one that started the season.
“I think that our last three games were our best games we’ve played all season, so it’s tough to take those losses,” Peddy said after beating L.A. “You can build off those types of games, we’ve got momentum, we saw our film, we tried to carry it over to the next game. We can’t hang our heads, we know our team, we know we have the talent, we know our record doesn’t reflect the talent we have in the locker room so as long as we stay in tune with each other and take it one game at a time, we’ll be good. May was a bad month for us but June is a new month...win June and it is a whole new ball game.”