August 17, 2022
How can the Mercury topple the Aces?
'We know what we can do'
88 days. Nearly two-and-a-half months. 2,112 hours. That’s how long it has been since the Phoenix Mercury and Las Vegas Aces squared off. In that time frame, Phoenix underwent a series of changes.
Tina Charles? Gone.
After her departure, the Mercury went 9-9 and secured the No. 7 seed. During that stretch, they developed a four-out offense, emphasizing the three point shot as well as getting to the basket.
Phoenix Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard described how her team has changed in the previous months.
“In that game (May 21), we had three Olympians (Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles) that we no longer have playing for us, if you count BG (Brittney Griner) not being there. So yeah, we’re a different team.”
How different is different?
A different team is an understatement to say the least. Since the all-star break, Phoenix leads the WNBA in three point attempts (27.7) and are second in makes (9.3).
Also, the Mercury have 148 total post-up possessions on the season… according to Synergy Stats, Charles accounts for 95 of those. Nearly 66% of the team’s post-ups came from the eight-time all-star alone. And she hasn’t played for Phoenix since June 23.
They have developed quite the three point shooting team. Forward Sophie Cunningham and guards Diana Taurasi and Shey Peddy are all top-10 in three point attempts since the all-star break. Taurasi leads the WNBA in makes (3.6) and attempts (9.9) since the break. Cunningham is second in threes made (3.2) while shooting 40.9%. In the final four games, Peddy knocked down 3.3 threes while shooting an incredible 43.3%.
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Those last 88 days look to be what Nygaard is taking full advantage of for preparation. “We have a new team. We have a really receptive group that’s willing to try anything. I know that they (Vegas) have a tremendous amount of shooters and offensive potential but I think our team has been really tough defensively too,” Nygaard said. “So hopefully, just play to our strengths and share the ball. I think we’re a very unselfish group now and that’s an advantage that we can really stick to for the playoffs.”
Their defense will be crucial in these games. Las Vegas holds the highest three-point percentage (36.1%). Two of their best shooters are Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. Plum makes 42% of her seven threes per game and Young shoots 43.1% on a respectable 3.4 attempts per game.
Phoenix will need everything they can get as Las Vegas has the highest scoring offense with 90.4 points. Aces forward Dearica Hamby is scheduled to miss the first round with a knee injury. Despite this, Nygaard knows they need to be at their best.
“All my focus is on Vegas. I know they had some injuries but Kiah Stokes has been playing well for them and she has some good size. So they’ve been doing a little bit different in their rotations than they didn’t previously,” Nygaard said. “But you know, myself and my assistant coaches, we’re going to dive hard into Vegas. We’ve already been doing the prep. This whole week, we’ve been spending time making sure that we’re ready in case this was a scenario. So we’ll be ready.”
Stokes is what the Aces need right now. Since the break, she has nine games with at least five rebounds or more. Stokes came off the bench for eight of those games. Size is an issue for the Mercury, as they are last out of all playoff teams with 31.2 rebounds per game. Even so, they still lead the WNBA in blocks, with 4.5 per game.
Does Phoenix have any advantage?
Short answer, yes. It may not be what some would expect though. This is something intangible, not something that can be acquired with a hardship contract or trade: experience. Statistics and betting odds are in the Aces’ favor but the Mercury came off a WNBA Finals appearance last season. Players like Diamond DeShields, Cunningham and Peddy went to the big dance and know what it’s like. Cunningham talked about how having that championship experience creates an advantage.
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“We’ve been to every stage. We’ve been on the biggest stage in basketball that you can get on,” Cunningham said of the Mercury. “You have a huge advantage because you know what to expect, you know, the feelings, what type of vibe, the arenas bring the fans, all that type of energy. It’s big when you’ve experienced something that you know how to handle.”
Rookie Sam Thomas has championship experience on her side. She went to the 2021 NCAA Final Four with the University of Arizona. Thomas explained during Tuesday’s media availability how the Mercury’s season may have some write them off against the Aces.
“I think judging just by our season, everyone would think that we’re the underdogs and not really expecting us to win. But I know we believe in each other, we know what we can do,” Thomas said. “Obviously, having the eight seed, you are perceived as kind of the underdog, I would say going into number one seed. But I mean, we’ve persevered through so much this season. So I think going against the number one seed, we’re just going to see it as another game that we’re gonna get through and win.”
Center Megan Gustafson echoed this sentiment.
“It’s really important that we really go into the playoffs with a chip on our shoulder. We’ve got something to prove,” Gustafson said. “I think there’s a lot of teams counting us out because of how much we’ve been through this season. So we just got to go into it with a who cares who we’re facing, bulldog mentality.”
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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