July 13, 2021 

How the Mercury saved their season with a party

Phoenix takes 2 of 3 from W's top teams, even without Taurasi

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After getting routed by 31 points on their home floor on July 3, the Phoenix Mercury spent their next day doing what many around the United States did.

They had a Fourth of July party. And it may have saved their season.

“I’m gonna take full credit for that,” Sandy Brondello, the host of that party and the head coach of the Mercury, said on Friday. “I think it was a nice, fun little party to enjoy and just to get away from it.”

Phoenix started their final week before the Olympic break at 7-9 and with three games against the league’s top two teams in five days, knowing it was gut-check time. They ended the week at 9-10, winning an overtime thriller in Las Vegas 99-90 on Wednesday before taking down the defending champion Seattle Storm 85-77 at home on Friday.

Phoenix couldn’t complete the three-game stretch with three wins, falling 82-75 to the Storm in Seattle on Sunday. But considering that they only played with seven players (and without head coach Sandy Brondello) and at one point trailed by 18 but fought back, cutting it down to a three-point deficit at one point, it left the Mercury rather pleased with their efforts over the week.

“When you’re kind of down as a team and you’re not getting wins, and then you look at your schedule and see Vegas once and Seattle twice, you go, ‘Okay, this can be really good or really bad going into the break,’” said Julie Hairgrove, who served as acting head coach on Sunday. “I thought our team really responded well and coming out with a 2-1 to finish the break, I feel like we have a lot of momentum. We’re doing very well defensively, just team defense, loading things up really well. It’s just good to see we are playing well down the stretch.”

In what should surprise no one at this point, Brittney Griner was sensational in helping the Mercury get their two wins, earning her second Western Conference Player of the Week nod of the season by averaging 26 points (on 54.5% shooting), 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks. Griner particularly had strong efforts in both wins, scoring a season-high 33 points against the Aces on Wednesday and backing that up with 29 points on Friday.

“BG, she knows when she can do more,” Brondello said Friday. “I love coaching her because she’s one of the first players [to say], ‘Sorry coach, that one’s on me.’ She takes ownership, and not all players are like that. BG, she’s one special human being. The way that she’s playing … obviously, we needed her to step up, and for us to get these two wins, she’s been critical for us.”

But the Mercury’s other healthy Olympian was vital, too. Skylar Diggins-Smith scored 27 points and tallied eight assists in Wednesday’s win in Vegas and followed that up with 26 points, six assists, three steals and a team-high two blocks on Friday against Seattle. It was a game that was truly one on Diggins-Smith’s best all-around performances.

“That’s something that Jim Pitman said to me — I’ve had more points, I’ve had more assists, but I think just all-around, I know what I can bring to the table when I’m locked in,” Diggins-Smith said Friday. “[Friday], I was finally able to put it all together. I’m not gonna get too high off of this game, I’m not gonna get too high off of what we did, we ain’t did nothing yet. I know what I can bring to this table for this team and I can contribute in other ways than scoring the basketball.”

The combination of Griner and Diggins-Smith has, some nights, been all Phoenix has going for it, but they’ve helped keep the ship afloat, especially without Diana Taurasi. After missing nine games earlier this season with a fracture in her sternum, Taurasi didn’t play at all this week because of a hip injury.

“You need your best players to be who they are, and they’ve been [great],” Brondello said. “Obviously, we’ve had times where we’ve been up-and-down, and it’s just getting consistency. They’re the leaders of our team, those two.”

The Mercury didn’t have Diana Taurasi all week, as a hip injury popped up before the game in Las Vegas and, despite warming up before each game, the team ruled her out before tipoff each time. They also were without Alanna Smith for both Seattle games, as she was with the Australian national team preparing for the Olympics.

Sophie Cunningham stepped up well as the starter filling Taruasi’s place on Wednesday, making 4-of-5 3-point attempts to score 13 points while also grabbing seven rebounds. But Cunningham took a hit in the first half that had her enter the concussion protocol, leaving the Mercury with seven healthy players for the second half on Friday and all of Sunday.

Which is why one of the most encouraging takeaways from the week for Phoenix was Kia Nurse’s resurgent performance on Sunday, when it was most needed. Seattle sent double- and triple-teams at Griner consistently and focused on Diggins-Smith heavily, too, holding Diggins-Smith to 17 points and Griner to 16. But Nurse broke out for her best game as a Mercury, making a career-high seven 3-pointers and finishing with a season-high 28 points.

“Kia’s an excellent shooter — every time she shoots it, I think it’s going in, even in our previous games,” Brianna Turner said. “I know she hasn’t hit as many as tonight, but I have a lot of confidence in Kia and I was happy for her to get her shots in tonight. She really kept us in the game — if she didn’t bring the energy, the game wouldn’t have ended like it did.”

Many were calling Phoenix’s wins over Las Vegas and Seattle upsets, and while Griner understood that casting, she felt the team did not consider the wins that way.

“I’m not shocked people say upset, just with how we’ve played in some games and the standings,” Griner said on Friday. “But I don’t think it’s an upset. Everybody knows our potential and we’re starting to see our potential. I don’t think this is an upset at all, I think it is a good win.”

Phoenix will take the first two weeks of the Olympic break completely off, allowing their players that aren’t going to Tokyo to return home and get some needed rest and recuperation. The Mercury will also hope that Bria Hartley’s recovery from a torn ACL can ramp up and get her ready to make her 2021 debut once the break ends.

But when the team’s playing like this, you can’t fault them for wanting to keep things rolling.

“You start playing well and you’re like, ‘Gosh, I don’t want the Olympic break to happen,’ because we have been playing so well,” Hairgrove said. “But I think everyone will enjoy their break and we’re excited to return and finish the second half because of the momentum we’ve build in these last three games.”

But still, five players and Brondello are either already in Tokyo or preparing to head there. And Turner was very clear in what she expects from her teammates during their time overseas.

“I told them all everyone should come home with a medal, so Australia, Canada and USA, I expect everyone to come back to Phoenix with a medal,” Turner said. “We’re going to be working hard while they’re in Tokyo so we’ll be ready for their return so we can get back to the second half of our season.”

And when they get back? Brondello doesn’t mind using the house she bought a few months ago up near the Phoenix Mountain Preserve into a “party house” if that’ll help the team.

“We had a lot of fun, it was fun just to get away and relax,” Brondello said. “Sometimes, we take this game way too seriously. It’s our job, but sometimes you’ve just got to let go and refocus.

“As soon as I’m back from the Olympics, we’ll be right there.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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