October 8, 2021 

Kia Nurse is hurt and the Phoenix Mercury’s season is on the brink

Difficult choices loom for Sandy Brondello

PHOENIX — How quickly things can change in the WNBA playoffs.

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On a chaotic Wednesday back downtown at the Footprint Center with a crowd primed for a celebration, two injuries — one before the game and one just 40 seconds in — sent the Phoenix Mercury into a funk that the Las Vegas Aces capitalized on.

And after two Mercury blowout wins, the Aces handed one back of their own, winning 93-76 on Wednesday night to send this WNBA semifinal series to a winner-take-all Game 5 back in Las Vegas on Friday night.

Already without small forward Sophie Cunningham because of a Grade 1 left calf strain, the Mercury’s starting small forward Kia Nurse went down just 39 seconds into this game with a non-contact right knee injury that The Next can report is a torn ACL. Nurse was attempting to go up for a layup with Aces forward A’ja Wilson closing in when her right knee buckled upon landing. Nurse’s shot was blocked by the flying Wilson, who fell on top of Nurse as they both went down.

But video replays from the ESPN broadcast showed Nurse already starting to shout in pain before she even hit the ground, and she was reaching for her right knee as she was falling, too. It appears to be a major injury for the Canadian, with Brondello saying it “doesn’t look good” after Wednesday night and Nurse already getting ruled out for Game 5.

“Obviously we feel for Kia, because she’s been such a big part of what we’ve done this year,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. “She’s been a main staple, being there every single game. She plays so hard and does so much for us, so obviously we feel for Kia right now.”

Aces guard Kelsey Plum added, “I wish her all the best. It’s just devastating to see that happen, especially live ball.”

It’s absolutely awful timing for Nurse on a variety of levels. She was playing her best basketball of the season in the last few games, showing herself to be a strong cog in the Phoenix system. She’s also an impending restricted free agent after this season, and while the expectation was that she would have a good bit of interest around the WNBA, it’s unfortunate to say that the injury could cost her some money in free agency.

For Phoenix in the here and now, there’s a dearth of options at the small forward spot that work. Cunningham did not participate in practice on Tuesday, in shootaround on Wednesday morning or in warmups before Game 4. Before the game, Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello didn’t rule her out but also didn’t sound confident that Cunningham would be ready for Friday.

“She’s making good progress, but you know, with calves, even if it’s a Grade 1, which it is, you don’t want to push it if you’re feeling it because that’s when you can tear stuff,” Brondello said.

Phoenix obviously knew that they would be missing Cunningham, but to lose Nurse so early in the game can ruin a team’s gameplan and how the rotations might have been sketched out ahead of time. Losing these specific two players put Brondello into scramble mode.

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“It hurt us, big time,” Brondello said. “They’re the players that give us that toughness and that energy. Nothing against the other ones coming in, but they haven’t had the opportunities to do that. You took both of our 3 [-position] players out and that hurt.”

What does Phoenix do without their two main small forwards? In Game 4, they played Megan Walker and Bria Hartley significantly more than they had before. Walker appeared to struggle in her 14 minutes and was on the floor for a significant chunk of the Aces’ 24-0 third quarter run. She’s likely to play some in Game 5 and she has the size to be able to play small forward, but it doesn’t seem like Phoenix trust her, given the lapses she’s prone to on the defensive end.

Hartley played a season-high 20:32 and did relatively well, tallying seven points, three assists and two rebounds. Even though she is playing and has been for a month now, she’s still in the rehabilitation process from her torn ACL from last August and is clearly a step slower than she used to be, which can be a real challenge on the defensive end against the Las Vegas guards.

Hartley is also, notably, not a small forward, but Phoenix’s only answer, at this point, may be to go to a three-guard look. That would pair Skylar Diggins-Smith and Taurasi with either Hartley or Shey Peddy, who made every shot she took (two 2-pointers, two 3-pointers, three free throws) on the night. Still, that would require one of the three guards on the floor to guard Chelsey Gray, who feasted on whoever was guarding her on Wednesday night in a 22-point effort.

One option that could test how creative — and crazy — is Sandy Brondello willing to be: throwing all three of Phoenix’s post players — Brittney Griner, Kia Vaughn and Brianna Turner – onto the floor at the same time, letting Turner be the small forward option. The spacing on the offensive end would admittedly be rough, but with Griner’s emerging outside shooting game and Vaughn’s consistent midrange jumper, there’s a way it could work on offense.

Turner’s more than capable of guarding any player on the floor and Phoenix would be confident she could guard Gray, but moving her off of Wilson would be a massive risk … if they didn’t have Vaughn on the floor.

Of course, none of that will matter if the Mercury get another offensive night from their big three of Diggins-Smith, Griner and Taurasi like they did on Wednesday. Each missed double-digit shots from the field, scoring a combined 41 points on 51 shot attempts.

Las Vegas had been sending double teams at Griner rather consistently throughout the series, much like New York and Seattle did before them in the playoffs. On Wednesday, they mostly stuck with single-coverage on Griner, letting Liz Cambage act as the primary defender whenever she was in and using Kiah Stokes when she wasn’t. And while acknowledging Griner missed some shots she usually makes on the night, it’s pretty clear Las Vegas felt the shift in the game plan worked exactly as they intended.

“Brittney Griner’s a very good player and she missed some easy shots,” Laimbeer said. “You can’t stop her, you’ve just got to limit her effectiveness as much as possible. And we were fortunate enough that that happened.”

It’s also evident that the loss of Nurse and Cunningham has affected Phoenix’s 3-point shooting, too. After averaging almost 22 3-pointers a game in the regular season — even with Taurasi out for half of the regular season — and almost 28 per game in the playoffs entering Wednesday, the Mercury only took 19 shots from beyond the arc in Game 4, with Taurasi accounting for nine of those 19 attempts.

It was a busy but buzzing night downtown for the Mercury, playing back in their usual home of the Footprint Center with a chance to advance to their first WNBA Finals since 2014. But instead, it was the 10th loss on their home floor on 2021, only the third time the Mercury have loss double-digit home games between the regular season and playoffs in franchise history.

But the Mercury reached this point by having the league’s best road record, and the gap between road wins (12) and home wins (seven) was the largest in WNBA history. This is a team that’s played their best on the road all season long. And their most recent road effort was one of the great offensive efforts in WNBA playoff history.

After that effort and the dominant performance in Game 3, the Mercury looked to be reaching their peak and looked to be as fully complete as a championship-level basketball team.

But now, one game later, and they’re back playing in a win-or-go-home game … and even with all three of their Olympic gold medalists able to play, the road to victory and to the WNBA Finals looks more daunting than it has all season long.

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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