July 10, 2023
Are the 2023 Phoenix Mercury finally turning a corner?
Head coach Nikki Blue: 'I think we're trending in the right direction'
The Phoenix Mercury might not be so bad after all.
After a dreadful 2-10 start to the 2023 WNBA season, the Mercury seemed defeated and were struggling with many aspects of the game. They moved on from head coach Vanessa Nygaard and replaced her with assistant coach Nikki Blue on an interim basis.
Immediately after the switch, Phoenix’s energy was noticeably on a different level. It led to a strong showing against the Dallas Wings in Blue’s first games as interim head coach. However, the Mercury fell flat in the fourth quarter, losing the June 27 game 77-62. The Mercury blew out the Indiana Fever 85-63 in their next game and while it was an impressive win, the Fever are a young team still improving after years of being the league’s worst team.
After the win over the Fever, the Mercury put together one of their worst performances of the season. Despite only losing 86-76 to the Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix turned the ball over a whopping 24 times. It seemed as though all hope of righting the ship may have been lost. The Mercury sat at 3-12 heading into a three-game stretch that included one of the top teams in the WNBA, the New York Liberty, the Lynx again and a game Sunday with the Los Angeles Sparks. The Liberty defeated the Mercury 89-71 on June 18 and the Sparks were 2-0 on the season against Phoenix.
The game against the Liberty appeared to be a typical 2023 Mercury game. With 4:46 left in the third quarter, Phoenix went down by 20 points on a Sabrina Ionescu 3-pointer. However, riding on the back of a vintage performance from Diana Taurasi and clutch fourth quarters from Brittney Griner, Sophie Cunningham and Michaela Onyenwere, the Mercury stormed back to take a 94-92 lead on an Onyenwere layup with 1:51 left. The Mercury ended up losing 99-95 but the performance showed they were not just going to be blown out every time they play one of the league’s top teams. They also cut down on the turnovers with 15, the same amount as the Liberty.
Taurasi rested for Friday’s game at Minnesota and Phoenix put up an awful offensive first half, scoring just 22 points. The Mercury trailed 39-22 at the half but just like in the game against the Liberty, Phoenix did not quit. The team still lost 75-64 but outscored the Lynx 42-36 in the second half. Onyenwere put together another great performance as she followed her 19-point output against New York with a season-high 24 points.
Sunday’s game against the Sparks seemed to be where it all came together for Phoenix. Yes, the Sparks were missing numerous key contributors including Lexie Brown and Layshia Clarendon but their star and WNBA Most Valuable Player candidate, Nneka Ogwumike, was on the floor.
Taurasi returned and had another excellent performance. She scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and had five assists. Griner could not be stopped as she tied her season-highs with 29 points, 11 rebounds and her first dunk of the season. The dunk seemed to fire up the Footprint Center crowd and the team. The Mercury won the game 78-72 and when the Sparks cut Phoenix’s lead to just two with 1:21 left, the Mercury were able to close the game out. In the rare close games Phoenix has been involved in this season, an overtime loss to the Sparks on June 2 and the most recent game against the Liberty.
“It was nice to close a game,” Taurasi said after Sunday’s win. “I think, especially earlier in the year we had a couple opportunities – one against LA going into overtime, Chicago at home. A couple weeks back in Dallas. We’ve had these opportunities and haven’t been able to really finish. I think tonight we just had a more aggressive mentality. When you play passive in these games, it kind of bites you in the butt. But when you play aggressive and you’re not passive, good things happen. I think we did that as a group down the stretch even after they made a lot of plays.”
Yes, Phoenix still has a lot to work on. The Mercury had 18 turnovers on Sunday and still lead the league with 16.3 per game. They only have one victory all season against one of the eight teams currently occupying a playoff. But Sunday’s performance was the first time since June 11 that Phoenix won the rebounding battle. They also have shown much better intensity defensively recently, which was evident Sunday as the Sparks shot 37.1% from the field.
“I still think we’re a work in progress,” Blue said. “I think we’re trending in the right direction. Just the effort offensively and defensively collectively in the whole locker room has been great. I’m very pleased with it. Our coaching staff is very pleased with it. But I feel that the sky is still the limit for us. I still think that we can be better defensively. I think that we can score more offensively.”
At 4-14, the Mercury have their work cut out for them as far as making the playoffs. But in a league where eight of the 12 teams are postseason bound each year, they could easily turn the season around and make one of the lower playoff spots. The current No. 8 seed, the Chicago Sky, are just 8-11 on the season.
A critical game is coming up Tuesday for Phoenix in its last one before the All-Star break. The Mercury travel to take on the best team in the WNBA, the 17-2 Las Vegas Aces, at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT. An upset would be surely be huge for Phoenix heading into the break.
“This next game is going to be important for us and then the break is going to be really important for us. We can start implementing more things, get a little bit of rest, try to get healthy. … We’re playing some really good basketball when our whole team is healthy. So we’re headed in the right direction.”
Written by Jesse Morrison
Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.