August 31, 2020 

‘A great game’: Second straight win gives Mercury a recipe for success

Beating Minnesota showed Phoenix how it can play through its All-Star guards

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PALMETTO, FL – AUGUST 30: Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury smiles duringthe game against the Minnesota Lynx on August 30, 2020 at Feld Entertainment (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Missing key pieces, Phoenix is using the opportunity of a depleted roster to unlock its legendary backcourt.

A quick look at Sunday’s injury report against the Minnesota Lynx provided ample reason for surrender. Already without Jessica Breland, who was a medical opt-out for the 2020 season, the Mercury were also without Brittney Griner, who is out of the Wubble for personal reasons; Bria Hartley, down with what head coach Sandy Brondello confirmed was a season-ending knee injury; and Nia Coffey, who is battling a hand injury that has bothered her for several days.

Add in (another) truly challenging week of uprisings in response to police violence that led to the WNBA striking games, as well as the now-expected challenges of clean-site basketball, and the Mercury had plenty of reasons to falter.

They didn’t. Instead, they grabbed a game from the rival Lynx, winning 83-79, and put together a second straight dominating performance. Perhaps most importantly, the Mercury continued to solidify what is a winning identity without Griner.

All-Star guards Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith combined for 33 shot attempts while no one else on the roster took more than nine shots. The two stars totaled nearly 50 of the Mercury’s 83 points. Without Griner, the court is more open and the Mercury’s perimeter players are taking advantage, showing the effect of having two stellar guards on the court together.

“We’re going to have to be aggressive and we’re going to have to make sure we distribute the ball at the same time,” Taurasi said postgame. “It’s a work in progress, and so far, so good.”

Though Minnesota made a run in the second half, the Mercury had such a big lead by that point that they were able to hold on, and some unexpected contributors helped finish off one of Phoenix’s best wins of the year.

Clearly it’s not beneficial to any team in a condensed season with medical opt-outs and less practice time to lose players, but in this case, the Mercury seem to have settled on a hierarchy in back-to-back wins that is helping them. The team’s new big three was hyped out of free agency, but it appears Phoenix missed training camp more than most teams, losing valuable time to put together a system on both ends that maximized the talents of its stars. 

With one star in Griner cleared out of the equation, the system is simple. Give the two guards space to make plays in the open court and outscore the opponent.

But beyond that, roles are taking form. Whether that’s second-year forward Brianna Turner playing big minutes and taking on difficult defensive matchups every night or backup guard Shey Peddy closing Sunday’s win by defending Rookie of the Year contender Crystal Dangerfield, the Mercury have played both of the past two games with a clearer sense of purpose when it comes to what each player needs to do to emerge with a win.

“This year has been insane, and a lot of us didn’t have an opportunity to practice together until we got here,” said veteran Kia Vaughn, who is starting in place of Griner. “That in and of itself delayed the process of building chemistry, so as time has gone on, we’ve actually picked up what we need to do and what our roles are, and now, we’re just flowing. We’re not thinking too much.

“I feel like the less we think, the better we are. We know we have great players on our team … and we’re just going to contribute, have fun and play as hard as we can.”

After six years of running everything through Griner on both ends, it’s a fascinating basketball experiment to see what happens without her. This is a team that has long struggled on the glass, and without one of the biggest, most overwhelming presences in the WNBA, Phoenix somehow won the battle on the boards by 11. They also managed seven blocks without the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and shot nearly 45 percent from the field. 

This style looks much different and ultimately the ceiling is probably much lower. Still, the Mercury needed these wins to not fall further in the standings, and are on a little streak now. 

“Brittney’s great and you want to play through her,” Brondello said. “But that was a great game.”

To be at their best, Phoenix will need its best player. Griner gives them an anchor in the middle in a league where games are still decided at the rim. But the Mercury don’t know whether they will get Griner back this season, and more than one individual player, what Phoenix needed even more this week was an identity. Between absences and inconsistency, it’s been hard to put a finger on what precisely this group was all year. At least now, even with a depleted roster, the Mercury strung together performances that were definable. 

Powered by their two best play-makers on the outside, the Mercury are a difficult team to contain and one that is competing harder on defense. This stretch could put the team back on course and give it a more reliable nightly path toward victory.

Written by Brendon Kleen

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