July 2, 2021 

Mercury searching for solution to shooting slump

While Griner shines, the rest of the Mercury aren't knocking down open looks

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Brittney Griner goes up for a shot in a game against the Washington Mystics on May 18. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

As the Phoenix Mercury approach the halfway point of their season, one issue has been the big difference in several games already: with the exception of Brittney Griner, the Mercury aren’t making their shots consistently.

“We’ve been getting a lot of great shots all season long,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “We’ve just got to put the ball in the hole and be confident in shooting them.”

In fact, Wednesday’s loss to the Minnesota Lynx was the perfect example of how the season has gone for Phoenix en route to their 7-8 record so far. Griner was sensational, tying a Mercury franchise record by making her first 10 shots of the game from the field — all in the first half.

“It was definitely exciting to see BG get going,” guard Shey Peddy said. “She works on that jump shot all the time, so to see it fall and for her to have the first half that she had, she was dominant.”

But while Griner finished the game making 12-of-15 shots, including drilling her second 3-pointer of the season, to score a team-high 28 points, the adjustments Minnesota made tried to force other players to pick up the scoring. No one did, as everyone else but Griner on Phoenix shot just 32% (17-of-53) from the field for the game and the Mercury only scored 32 points in the second half.

“There are some shots, in the first half, it was a little bit easier to score, and they upped their defense in the second half,” Brondello said. “That’s what they do and that made it a little hard for us — they crowded us more and were a bit more aggressive in the pick-and-roll action. Maybe we hesitated a little bit. We’ve got to shoot it running at it. We’ve got to shoot better.”

While the team anticipated that Bria Hartley’s rehab from an ACL injury might keep her out for the entire first half — and it officially will, per Brondello — and their expensive roster was capping their team to 11 players even with Hartley, they still haven’t had the entire roster until this week. The extended overseas season kept Kia Vaughn away from the team for the first four games, and right before Vaughn was set to join, Diana Taurasi was ruled out with a fracture in her sternum and missed a month.

While the team would argue that’s not enough of an excuse and they should have done better than 4-5 without Taurasi, her impact was evident in her first game back on June 27 against the Sparks, when she scored 25 points on 6-of-11 shooting (4-for-8 from deep, and 9-for-9 from the free throw line) to lead the charge.

But Taurasi struggled against the Lynx on Wednesday, shooting 2-for-14 from the field and 1-for-8 from 3-point range for a 10-point night. While it’s just one poor night for the league’s all-time leading scorer, the rest of the team’s shooting struggles aren’t leaving much margin for error if the famously high-volume Taurasi has an off night. Kia Nurse had a scoreless night — the first since her rookie year — and while Skylar Diggins-Smith added 16 points, no one else on the team had more than five.

“It’s been an Achilles a little bit,” Brondello said of the supplemental scoring. “I’ve got to do a better job of getting Kia Nurse going. She’s our shooter … We know what she’s capable of and she can. I’ve got to do a better job of hopefully getting her some positioning.”

For the entire season, the Mercury are averaging the fewest field goals per game of any team in the WNBA at 64.8 attempts per game. While they’re making almost 50% of their 2-point shots, their 3-pointers account for almost a third of their shots (21 attempts per game) and they’re making them at the second-worst clip in the league, 29.8%.

And while they’re averaging 21.8 free throws per game, second-most in the league, they’re only making them 78% of the time — ranking them 10th out of 12 in the WNBA. Overall, their points per game average is 79.3, which also ranks 10th.

Perhaps most frustrating about the lack of shot-making is that the shots they’re taking have, for the most part, been the looks they want, and some are even wide-open. But Phoenix hasn’t even been able to knock those down, and when 11 of their 15 games have had a single-digit margin, those nights where they don’t fall hurt even more.

“We got some good, open looks, we’re just missing them,” Brondello said. “We’ve got to be a little more consistent with our scoring.”

The one player who has been able to provide that consistency is Griner, who added another excellent night to her superb, near-MVP level season on Wednesday in part by expanding her shooting range.

While always stellar within the paint, Griner’s been shooting at a 54.2% clip from the midrange this season. And Griner’s willingness to shoot from 3-point range continues to grow, as she’s already doubled her career total from deep with two 3-pointers made (in fact, she’s tied for the team lead in 3-point percentage at 33.3% with Taurasi, though Taurasi is 14-for-42). Griner has wanted to do this to take advantages of the spots defenses are leaving her open.

“Definitely felt a groove with my shot, and I was working on it a lot,” Griner said. “They mostly prepare for me to be down low, and most of my game is down-low, post moves. So being able to switch it up on teams is good, because most of the time they dare you to shoot the elbow shot or the deep shot. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s good, that plays into our favor.’ I know that because I have that same mentality about other players. ‘Oh, shoot it. Don’t get on the block.”

There’s also the supplemental benefit that, by increasing her ability to shoot outside, it’ll help reduce the wear-and-tear that Griner undoubtedly picks up when fighting for rebounds inside on the offensive end.

“I just work on that for my game, and as I get older, I want to play as long as I can, I can’t bang like that when I’m up there in age like that,” Griner said. “I just got to work on the other parts of my game and yeah, definitely got into the shooter’s kind of zone [Wednesday]. I don’t even think about it, it was just like, ‘Let it fly.’”

Starting a game with a 10-for-10 first half? That even surprised Griner, sure. But in her mind, the performance wasn’t enough.

“I want to sit here and be like, ‘Yeah, I knew I had it in me,’ but I would be lying,” Griner said. “I knew I could shoot the elbow shot, but I never thought I would start a game off like that. But the way I look at it, that shit don’t mean nothing because we lost.

“I can have a great shooting game, have a shit ton of points, but if we don’t get the W, then I didn’t do enough. I didn’t do enough to help my team. I could’ve gotten more boards, I could’ve made it tougher down low for Syl. I just look at the game, and I look at so much and say, ‘I could’ve done so much and I need to do better.’ ”

Griner will get that chance to do better on Saturday in their final game against the Lynx this season. While that game marks the halfway point, in the rest of the run-up to the Olympic break, the Mercury finish with three straight games against the league-leading Aces and Storm — once in Las Vegas, then playing the Storm once in Phoenix and once in Seattle.

As they sit 7-8 in the muddied middle of the WNBA standings, Phoenix is going to need to find some way to break out of this shooting slump they’re mired in if they have want to be ready for a second half surge.

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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