CHICAGO – The Phoenix Mercury’s 73-70 loss on Tuesday to the Chicago Sky – the same team that defeated them in the WNBA Finals last season – was obviously a step in the right direction for a team that had desperately need a win. Diana Taurasi was ejected late in the second quarter, but the shorthanded Mercury still managed to overcome a double-digit deficit to take an eight-leg lead heading into the fourth, positioning themselves within range of coming away with a win. That was more than Phoenix could say for various other games this season.
But moral wins mean little amid a six-game losing streak and 2-7 start to the season that, even taking into account personnel changes in the offseason and hiring from first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard, don’t reflect Phoenix’s level of talent. listing.
How did a Mercury team that entered the 2022 season with championship or bust expectations fare through the first quarter of the season, and more importantly, how is Phoenix turning things around?
With the Mercury coming off their first WNBA Finals appearance since 2014, some predicted that even after the surprising decision to replace coach Sandy Brondello, the team would be more dangerous than ever after signing former MVP Tina Charles and acquired Diamond DeShields via a three-team trade. With four Olympic gold medalists and a budding star in DeShields, the idea was that the Mercury could be a super team that would rule the summer.
Phoenix has struggled both emotionally and basketball-wise with Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia since mid-February. But even allowing for his absence, the team’s record doesn’t tell the full story of his woes. The Mercury’s minus-9.3 net rating is the second-worst in the league (they’re 10th in offensive and defensive rating), and they’re last in rebound percentage (47.3%). While the offense has struggled at times, the defense — where Phoenix allows 106.8 points per 100 possessions — has been more consistently the area of concern.
Remove Griner and Kia Nurse, who are still recovering from an ACL tear in October 2021, from a unit that was seventh in defensive rankings last season without making any defensive additions in the offseason and that’s not shocking. that the Mercury ended up here.
While Charles was Phoenix’s prized free agency acquisition, how exactly she and Griner were to share the floor was a bit of a mystery, as Charles mostly thrives on operating inside even though she has expanded her game. Even with Grinning out of the equation, Charles struggled to get started in Nygaard’s system. According to data from the Basketball Reference, Charles’ field goal percentage has notably dropped between 3 and 10 feet from the edge from last year to 2022 (51.9% to 34.2%). And defensively, she hasn’t been able to provide the unwavering inner presence the Mercury desperately needs given its shortcomings elsewhere.
Brittney Griner’s teammates talk about her absence 100 days after she was wrongfully detained in Russia.
Taurasi, who struggled with injuries most of last season, is nowhere near his 2020 All-WNBA Second Team performance. According to research from Basketball Reference, his net plus/minus per 100 possessions sits at minus-20. .2, by far a team minimum – and while his offense makes up for his defensive frailties, that hasn’t been the case this season. Her 30.3% shooting from 3 would be a career low (not counting the 2019 campaign, when she only played six games).
The fit and use of DeShields alongside Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Charles and – was she here – Griner was also a confusing concept at the start of the season. DeShields ranks No. 7 in the league in UAT (29.0%) despite shooting just 40.8% from the field, including 25% from 3.
Phoenix’s struggles in the regular season aren’t necessarily new. Since 2019 – when the roster as it now appears began to take shape with the selection of draft pick Sophie Cunningham and the trade for Brianna Turner – the Mercury have never finished better than fifth in the WNBA rankings, and their sharp note has never been so. better than fifth. It also translated into the playoffs, including after bringing in Diggins-Smith in 2020: After failing to get past the knockout rounds in 2019 and 2020, the Mercury sat 9-10 going into the 2021 All-Star break, and after earning the No. 5 seed of the playoffs, beaten by a New York Liberty team 12-20 in the first round with a one-point victory. Phoenix then beat a Seattle Storm team that missed Breanna Stewart in overtime to advance to the semifinals.
Clutch performances from role players such as Cunningham, Shey Peddy and Turner have helped the Mercury extend their playoff run, a reminder that even the most talented of the Big Three can’t be counted on to do everything to ensure that their teams win. But last season’s Finals appearance was largely fueled by MVP-level play from both Griner sides throughout the second half of the regular season and playoffs. While her basketball contributions are far from the primary concern of those close to her, her absence reveals how valuable she has been and would be to the Mercury’s success.
Phoenix has the time and talent to turn things around. And the Mercurys have a more favorable schedule moving forward after so many matchups against front-loaded top teams the first three weeks of the season. But they cannot be satisfied with their talent.
They need to find some semblance of a defensive heartbeat, something they’ve demonstrated at times against a Chicago team with an offense capable of being the best in the league. Nygaard and the players emphasized after the game that communication, covering for each other and stringing together back-to-back saves were the focus. Retrieving the nurse should possibly help too.
“Offense isn’t really our problem. We know we’re a capable team to score,” DeShields said. “The most important thing for us was our defence. We are proud of our efforts [Tuesday]the way we communicated.”
Last season, the Mercury showed that offensive firepower can mask defensive problems. Can they find their groove to this end now? Nygaard liked her team’s ball movement on Tuesday, movement that allowed the players to hit Charles in her place for a bevy of mid-range jumpers, where she thrived in the second half. But who will be the focal point in the future? DeShields could lead the team in field goal attempts per game, but Nygaard said if Charles “can score 25 points every game, that will help us for sure.” Can Taurasi and Diggins-Smith come out of the arc, and who else can step in as necessary add-on options that all good teams have?
Nygaard described Tuesday’s game as “emotional,” a word that perfectly applies to the Mercury’s season to date. Between the on-court adjustments that need to be made and the off-court turmoil that has undoubtedly been taxing, Phoenix’s trajectory will be fascinating as the franchise looks to keep its nine-year playoff streak intact.
Jonquel Jones gets up for a big block in the third quarter for the Sun.
Are we starting to see a separation between levels?
With every WNBA team having played between eight and 12 games and all but a handful of players expected to return to their teams’ fold this summer, we seem to have a clearer picture as June arrives of the teams that make up the upper portion. echelon of title contenders, who are still playoff-caliber teams, and who seem destined to miss the playoffs and end up in the draw.
The Las Vegas Aces remain the team to beat and are in a league of their own as the only team with less than three losses, bolstered by big wins over the Sky and Connecticut Sun last week. A rematch with Connecticut, this time with Sun coaches Curt Miller and Brandi Poole back on the sidelines as COVID-19 protocols return, awaits Thursday.
The Washington Mystics, Sun, Storm (who we haven’t seen much at full strength) and Sky – none of whom have more than three losses – parted ways as championship contenders alongside Vegas. While the Atlanta Dream (6-3) have exceeded early expectations, they are still looking for a real win to boost their resume, having yet to beat any team in the top half of the standings. Their next chances to prove themselves come Friday against Chicago and Tuesday in Seattle.
If the season ended today, the Dallas Wings and Los Angeles Sparks would earn the final two playoff spots, while the Indiana Fever, Mercury, Liberty and Minnesota Lynx would miss the playoffs.
Kelsey Plum drains a 3-point step back for Aces
A victory over the Sun on Friday at home would show that the Mercury is struggling to get back on track. The Fever are promising but still young. The Lynx and Liberty face an uphill battle as they deal with significant injury issues, with Moriah Jefferson and Natalie Achonwa indefinitely and Betnijah Laney now sidelined after knee surgery. In Minnesota, it’s also unclear when Damiris Dantas could finally make his season debut and whether Napheesa Collier will be back after giving birth last week.
There’s still plenty of basketball to be played, but heading into the season, very few likely had Minnesota and New York watching the playoffs from their couches on their bingo cards.
Where to start: Katie Lou Samuelson has been excellent since being inserted into the Sparks’ starting five, hitting 67% of her 3s in that span. The Wings’ Satou Sabally is finding his groove after coming late to Dallas from the road, averaging 15 points in his last two games. Indiana’s Victoria Vivians is playing some of her best basketball to start her fourth season in the league.
Bria Hartley (hamstring) made her WNBA season debut on Wednesday. The Next’s Em Adler reported that Stephanie Talbot, Sue Bird and Ezi Magbegor are all expected to be back from COVID-19 protocols by Storm’s game on Friday.
Who to sit: New York’s Laney is out for at least eight weeks after knee surgery; Minnesota’s Jefferson (quadruple) and Achonwa (hamstring) are out indefinitely.
Tiffany Hayes (knee) of Atlanta does not have a schedule for her debut in the 2022 WNBA season.