August 23, 2021 

Injury disasters avoided, Mercury are kicking into higher gear

The Mercury's four-game winning streak has vaulted Phoenix into fifth place at 13-10

It had to put a massive scare into everyone around Phoenix when Skylar Diggins-Smith limped off the Footprint Center floor on Tuesday against the Indiana Fever not even taking a single look back toward the team’s bench. But they avoided the injury bug that’s plagued the team all season long; as Diggins-Smith only missing the rest of that night.

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It means one thing: it’s go-time for the Mercury, and they’ve played like it. Phoenix opened the post-Olympic break stretch by winning all four games they played in a seven-game stretch; capped off by an 84-69 Saturday matinee win at the Atlanta Dream.

And while none of the four wins were the same, the Mercury have started to finally establish the team identity they’ve been striving for all year long — and the team is almost, finally whole.

While injury scares keep happening, they’re almost fully healthy

Coming off the Olympic break, it looked like Phoenix was finally getting close to having their entire 11-player roster healthy. Bria Hartley is working through most of the team drills on gamedays and getting involved with the team during practices. And while she was ruled out for the first week of games pretty quickly, there’s hope Hartley may be able to play when the team gets to New York.

But they have to get to New York with their 10 players good, and Tuesday’s game against Indiana provided them with one significant scare — and a few minor ones, on top of it. With 8:41 left in the first quarter, Phoenix raced out off a jumpball and fed Diggins-Smith on a fastbreak toward the Mercury locker room’s end of the floor, away from their bench. The left-hander finished a layup through traffic and fell to the floor, landing awkwardly on top of Indiana’s Danielle Robinson.

In stepping to avoid Robinson, Diggins-Smith rolled her ankle, dropping to the floor and laying there for a moment, clearly in pain. Phoenix fouled to stop the game before Indiana could get a 5-on-4 possession. Diggins-Smith then got up before her teammates or a member of the training staff could get to her. And without even looking back toward the bench, began hobbling off the floor and down the tunnel toward the Mercury locker room.

How Diggins-Smith left the floor, left a palpable concerning aura around the arena. And the Mercury’s first half ended up slow and a bit disoriented; which Indiana took advantage of to take a 4-point lead into the half. But in that halftime, the team saw that Diggins-Smith’s ankle sprain didn’t appear serious and was already seeing reduced swelling, shooting a quick jolt of positive energy into the Mercury.

“I think you’re always worried when someone goes down, and she’s such a big part of what we do,” Diana Taurasi said. “And Skylar, she always gets up, she’s very durable. To see her go down, I think it was a little disheartening for our team, but that’s when we have to rally. I think maybe it took us a little longer to get over that, but when we got word that she was okay, I think that calmed us a little bit.”

But it also helps when Taurasi’s there to get the team out of their heads, in her usual brand of blunt honesty.

“I said, ‘There’s good news: We can’t play any worse than that,’” Taurasi said.

Later that night, the Mercury also had two scares that proved minor — Kia Nurse left for a while to take a concussion test after getting elbowed in the head, and Sophie Cunningham limped off the floor with a cramp in her leg — but had Brondello begging for mercy from whatever basketball gods exist.

One thing the Mercury are proactively doing: trying to keep Taurasi’s minutes a tad limited, compared to her usual. Brondello wants to keep Taurasi between 26-28 minutes per game and did that in two of their four games last week.

Being attentive to Taurasi’s minutes now will make it easier to push her come playoff time. But they’ve already had to push her twice, both when Diggins-Smith got hurt Tuesday and when Cunningham, Shey Peddy and Kia Vaughn all couldn’t complete Saturday’s game with a variety of ailments (though none are expected to be major).

Winning in different ways

Of course, it helps that Taurasi can turn it on like no other player in WNBA history. She did just that against the Fever, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter to finish off the 84-80 comeback victory.

When Taurasi’s at her best, she beats teams at all three levels of the offensive game; hitting jump shots from the mid-range and from deep, distributing the basketball to open teammates. And then attacking the basket aggressively, which leads to both easy buckets at the rim and getting fouled and heading to the free-throw line. The key part of her 22-point, seven-assist night on offense; 10-for-10 from the free-throw line, with seven of those coming in the fourth.

“That’s what Diana does. I don’t think there’s any better closer than what she is. She controls the tempo, she makes a lot of good decisions, she makes big shots,” Brondello said. “She knows where she can be aggressive and she’s great at getting to the paint. I think she had a real good mixture of getting inside, not just shooting threes. And no one shoots free throws better than she does.”

It also helps when you have the league’s preeminent post player, too. Griner dropped 11 in the third quarter against Indiana on her way to a 25-point night. And followed that up with a 20-point first half against Washington on Thursday to keep Phoenix close. She’d finish that night with 30 points, 12 rebounds and five assists; as she continues to make a push to be considered in the MVP race; earning her third Western Conference Player of the Week nod of the 2021 season on Monday.

Griner has recorded a double-double in 13 of the Mercury’s 23 games this season already. And she and Diggins-Smith really kept the season afloat when Taurasi was missing time earlier in the season. And even when defenses scheme to take away one, the other can step up, like how Diggins-Smith dropped 25 on the Dream on Saturday.

But Brondello has long preached that the Mercury will be at their best; when they have players other than their three superstars scoring in double-figures; providing offensive threats that other teams must respect. In both of their games against Atlanta since the Olympic break, they’ve gotten that. And while Cunningham scored 17 points in the win over Atlanta on Aug. 15, it’s been the emergence of Brianna Turner that has made a major difference.

Turner’s been renowned throughout the league for her defensive efforts, and it’s been no different this season. She’s followed up her All-Defensive Team effort in 2020 with a potential Defensive Player of the Year-worthy 2021. But she hasn’t been considered a threat on the offensive end for most of her career so far.

But Turner’s come out of the Olympic break a far more aggressive player on the offensive end. She’s had double-digit points in three of four games — highlighted by a 15-point effort against the Dream on Saturday — and she grabbed 14 offensive rebounds in those four games, too. Even on a team with three great offensive threats, Brondello wants Turner comfortable calling for the ball, too.

“We trust her, we want her to take an outside shot,” Brondello said. “We trust her to do so many things. If she can get double-digits in every game, it makes it harder to scout against us.”

Turner still has shown her versatility on defense in guarding both inside and on the perimeter; successfully shutting down Courtney Williams for the majority of Saturday’s game in Atlanta. Her efforts have earned considerable praise from her teammates throughout the season, both from Diggins-Smith starting up the campaign for Defensive Player of the Year earlier this season and from Taurasi.

“Breezy just does what Breezy does,” Taurasi said. “She’s a complete maniac out there and is our band-aid in a lot of ways. She’s just unbelievable. Probably my favorite player in the entire league.”

And with Turner leading the way, the Mercury have found another gear on the defensive end; notably holding the Mystics to just 20 points in the second half on Thursday. After some fits and struggles on the defensive end early on, it seems like the team is finally gelling there.

“I think it’s just buying in to playing defense — coming out and having good energy,” Brondello said. “Defense is all about heart. You won’t always be perfect, but playing team defense is all about building trust and knowing your teammates have your back … Against the best teams, that’s what you need.”

When asked about the 47-24 rebounding advantage on Saturday, and specifically the 37-6 edge on their defensive end, Diggins-Smith said, “We’re playing desperate, and when you play against a team [with] Crystal Bradford, Courtney Williams, Monique Billings and Elizabeth Williams, you have to intentionally box those players out. It’s almost expected for BG and Breezy to get [rebounds], but when Dee is getting aggressive and getting rebounds like that, it gets our break going.

“When we win the rebounding battle, it usually says a lot about how the game goes for us. We’re trying to be very intentional with getting our breaks started and limiting teams to one shot.”

Time to pounce

In the jam-packed WNBA, any multi-game winning or losing streak can make a major impact on a team’s spot in the standings. The Mercury’s four-game winning streak has vaulted Phoenix into fifth place at 13-10. They’re now just a game behind Minnesota for fourth, thanks to the Lynx’s back-to-back losses in Connecticut this week.

Hurricane Henri postponed the Mercury’s travel plans by a day; arriving in New York on Monday for two games against the Liberty at the Barclays Center on Wednesday and Friday. While the Liberty have played tough games against everyone to start the second half; their only win was against a Seattle team that wasn’t playing Sue Bird or Breanna Stewart. And the injury Sami Whitcomb suffered in the Liberty’s game against the Sparks may have an impact.

Looking beyond New York, there’s still two games at the Fever and one back in Atlanta again. And If Phoenix fancies itself as a major contender and wants to earn a first-round bye, they’ll need to win those games.

It’s finally looking like the Mercury are in the place where they not only feel like they’re ready and capable of making that run. But are bringing that feeling onto the court and showing it, too.

“I just think we’re all locked in right now. This was a good opportunity for us these last few games obviously at home, and we wanted to get it going and get on a streak coming back from the break,” Diggins-Smith said. “We’re just road warriors right now. We just have to build off of these performances and build on both sides of the ball.”

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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