June 9, 2022 

‘It’s embarrassing’: The Phoenix Mercury are going through it

What needs to change?

PHOENIX– Two consecutive games for the Phoenix Mercury ended in a last-minute defeat, leaving them infuriated for all the right reasons. After the game, questions arose on the team’s mentality and commitment on the defensive end.

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Star players were out for Phoenix in those two contests. Diana Taurasi was ejected against the Chicago Sky. Then Tina Charles suffered a right shoulder injury and missed Friday’s match against the Connecticut Sun. With the injuries, unfamiliarity and the uncertainty of teammate Brittney Griner, it ignites emotion. Over the last seven games, that emotion is frustration.

“We’re pissed off,” Taurasi said postgame against the Sun. “The last few games have been frustrating. Where you think you’ve played well enough to win but no one really cares about that. We’re really far from where we want to go. But we’re really close to where we want to go.”

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They were really far from where they wanted to be against the Atlanta Dream. What was the result? A 27-point defeat in which the Mercury only scored 54 points. The Dream have the best defensive rating in the WNBA with an 89.4 rating, almost five points lower than the second-leading team, Chicago. Despite the impressive number, Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard knew immediately that something had to change.

“That was our worst collected game of the season, not just by the score, but also the way we played,” Nygaard said. “Whenever something happens in a game like that, it’s embarrassing.”

The team took that heavy loss and tried to end the month of May on a high note. Even without Taurasi, Phoenix looked determined. In the third quarter, their lowest scoring quarter of the season, they scored 31 points, more points than the entire first half. They took an 64-56 and had an 86.4% chance to win with 7:36 left in the fourth quarter.

But the lead crumbled before their eyes in the concluding minutes. Nygaard explained her thoughts after the game. “It’s not fun,” Nygaard said. “I’m the leader. It’s my job to prepare them. I’ll take 100% of the blame.” However, blame isn’t solely on Nygaard but on the lack of communication, particularly on the defensive end.

“Offense isn’t really our problem. We have plenty of offensive weapons,” Diamond DeShields said. “I think the biggest thing for us tonight was our defense and like Tina (Charles) said, how we communicated. That’s the biggest takeaway.”

With 7:36 in the fourth quarter, the Mercury had their best chance to win the 2021 WNBA Finals rematch against the Sky (Image via ESPN)

With limiting the Sky to their second-lowest point total of the season, the trip back to Phoenix included motivation but another significant blow. Charles sustained a right shoulder injury and would be ruled out against the top Eastern Conference team in the Sun. The Mercury faced a tired Connecticut team, who flew into Phoenix early Friday morning after defeating the Las Vegas Aces the night before.

The mix of rest and a focused mentality guided Phoenix to play a very impressive game… for the first 37 minutes. The purple-and-orange limited the 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones to only three shots in the first half. Not only that, they held Connecticut to nine shots in the second quarter. Phoenix aimed for the prize. Their first win in six games.

As 2:17 left in the fourth quarter approached, they had a 77.4% chance to win the game. But the Sun finished the game on a 9-1 run to take it. Jones scored four of the nine points as the Sun finished with their eighth win of the season, while Phoenix dropped to a league-worst 2-8 and their seventh straight loss.

Nygaard wasn’t pleased. “We have a lot of winners, and they’re sick of losing,” Nygaard said. “It’s boiling over at this point.”

The breakthrough

Sunday’s game against the Sparks reflected the Mercury’s effort level over the past two games. Through the first half, Phoenix led 43-40 and made their presence known defensively. In their previous match against the Sparks, Los Angeles shot 72.7% on 8-for-11 from three. Contesting the three was the point of emphasis Nygaard made clear before the game. Still, Los Angeles went 4-for-9 from beyond the arc in the first half, a cause for concern. However, their halftime defensive adjustments forced Los Angeles to shoot 1-for-7 in the final two quarters.

Also, Brianna Turner guarded Sparks superstar Liz Cambage and continually frustrated her. The Australian-born player only played 13 minutes and scored eight points. Thus, constant double-teams, as well as defensive rotations made her nearly ineffective at initiating the offense from the high post.

What does this mean going forward?

Phoenix had a horrific month of May. Dropping seven consecutive games isn’t something to brag about. “When you lose that many games in a row, you just get pissed off,” Skylar Diggins-Smith explained. “We took the losses early and now we’re looking to go on a stretch the other way.”

The Mercury will hope to ride the momentum against the Atlanta Dream on Friday, after losing by a season-high 27 points in their previous matchup. They look to maintain the consistent defensive effort while aiming to get Charles back in the lineup.

Written by Hayden Cilley

Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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