July 25, 2020 

Mercury tally 27 turnovers as new Big Three debuts with obvious growing pains

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Newly formed rosters will need to adjust quickly

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The Phoenix Mercury huddle up before their regular-season game against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 25, 2020. (Photo via @PhoenixMercury on Twitter)

The Phoenix Mercury locker room may have had more energy postgame than in the IMG Academy arena during a 99-76 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks.

“That locker room was the most positive locker room I’ve ever seen (after) losing by 20,” said point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who made her WNBA return after having last played in 2018, against her new team in the playoffs.

Don’t blame the “awkward setting” of the IMG Academy arena, as Diana Taurasi called it, but the Mercury’s 27 turnovers are uncharacteristic for this group. Phoenix totaled the second-fewest turnovers in the league last year and is led by a pair of All-Stars in Diggins-Smith and Taurasi. 

But while the team was impressed with its progress in training camp, players acknowledged it was the first time all 10 had suited up since the season began. Forty-four year-old assistant coach Chasity Melvin joined the team for five-on-five drills as recently as this week. They will need more time to gel, and their lack of cohesion was on clear display against a Sparks core that has played together for years.

“We’re still trying to learn sets and figure out where everyone needs to be,” Taurasi said. “We weren’t as structured as we need to be to be really good.”

Early in the game, the Sparks devoted most of their defensive attention to Brittney Griner – a popular MVP pick – in the post, sending guards to help and making Griner uncomfortable. Griner also picked up two early fouls, and head coach Sandy Brondello took her out for the final 7:24 of the period. 

With Griner uncomfortable and then out of the lineup, the team’s offensive rhythm was hurt. Shooters were hesitant to take open threes despite fairly crisp ball movement early, guard Bria Hartley said.

“I know for a fact that I was out there even from the start overthinking a little bit,” Hartley added.

Despite all that, the Mercury were down just 4 at the half. Phoenix came out flat in the third, while Los Angeles took the floor “up another notch,” as Brondello put it. The Sparks won the third quarter, 30-7. 

Even generating good shots, as the Mercury agreed they did, and being aggressive getting inside, as Diggins-Smith said was her focus en route to 14 points and six assists, the game was effectively over after the third period. 

There are a lot of ways to explain this one that tangentially relate to how poorly Phoenix controlled the ball: Griner’s foul trouble, rustiness, little practice time. These are all factors facing the entire WNBA, and game situations the Mercury will face again. And in a 22-game season, sloppiness is something that will have to be fixed quickly. 

“You’d rather have these experiences earlier in the season,” Brondello said. “It’s not really about a loss, but a lesson that we’ve learned today.”

The three-day break until Phoenix’s next game is among the longest gaps between contests they’ll get all season. An off day Sunday will be followed by two practices to start next week, and then it’s game time again. By Wednesday night, the regular season will be almost 10 percent finished. The growing pains were inevitable, but cannot linger.

Added Brondello: “Maybe this is going to be the best thing that (could have) happened to us.”

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