June 5, 2024 

Phoenix Mercury living and dying by the three to start 2024

The Phoenix Mercury are 2-4 when shooting less than 35% from three and shot under 20% in their two biggest losses

Already down 18-6 through the first eight minutes of Tuesday’s matchup against the Seattle Storm, the Phoenix Mercury needed to find a way to get their offense going. As has happened so often this season, Natasha Cloud drove to the basket with a full head of steam. Upon running into the wall of Seattle’s Joyner Holmes protecting the hoop, Cloud kicked it out to a wide-open Mikiah Herbert Harrigan in the corner. With no hesitation, Herbert Harrigan released and made the shot. 

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It was the first 3-pointer the Mercury had made in Tuesday’s contest and the only one of their 12 attempts in the first half that landed The Mercury finished the game 4-for-23 from deep in their second-worst 3-point shooting night of the season.

“We just missed shots,” Kahleah Copper said postgame.

Tuesday’s 80-62 loss was the second time this season that Phoenix made less than five threes in a game. The first was on May 29 on the road visiting the Connecticut Sun. In that ugly loss, the Mercury connected just once on 27 tries from deep. That night, they shot a historically low 3.7% clip from beyond the arc, the worst any WNBA team has ever shot.

“These nights are tough,” head coach Nate Tibbetts said after the Connecticut loss. “You know, you shoot one for whatever from three and 20 turnovers, you know. You’re not really giving yourself much of a chance. And you know, I thought we kept battling, but we never got to a point where we felt good about ourselves.”

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“I think when you have the scorers on our team that you have, and you have the three-point shooters, you have to keep trusting in yourself and keep trusting that shot,” Morgan Bertsch said. “… I think a lot of them were good looks, and that’s the shot you have to take every time. You know, even if that night it’s not falling, if you’re wide open at the three you have to take that shot.”

Through the first quarter of the season, the Mercury have shown they can shoot the ball well from distance, and they shoot the 3-ball a lot. Tibbetts has often mentioned his desire for his team to shoot upwards of 30 threes a game and griped about them taking too many midrange shots.

Two days before the Seattle loss, Phoenix hit 48.3% of its shots from range as a team in Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Sparks. Diana Taurasi went 7-for-9 from three. On Tuesday, she went 0-for-6. This inconsistency has plagued the Mercury through their 4-6 start.

When shots are falling, Phoenix benefits from its league-high 29.7 3-point attempts per game. When the Mercury can’t seem to find the bottom of the net, however, they have no backup plan and haven’t proven that they’re able to launch themselves out of a slump. Still, this certainly hasn’t deterred them from shooting. Additionally, with Brittney Griner out to start the season, the Mercury simply don’t have the personnel to push the ball inside the paint to an offensively dominant center. This leaves a perimeter-heavy attack based around a drive-and-kick offense as their best option.

“Well, it’s a shot that we like. It’s a shot that we want to take. It’s kind of the way that we’ve been built,” Tibbetts said. “And so we’re going to continue to take it. Obviously, Connecticut was a tough night. But yeah, those are shots that you know, with BG out, we’re not throwing it in the post much. It’s a ton of drive and kick. So the goal is rim or three, and that’s kind of how our philosophy has been and will continue to be.”

Phoenix Mercury guard-forward <a rel=
Phoenix Mercury guard-forward Kahleah Copper (2) shoots during the WNBA game between the Phoenix Mercury and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 28, 2024. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Three-point shooting is an integral part of the Mercury’s offense. It’s also a system the players have bought into. It’s allowed the Mercury’s versatility to shine with players in spots one through five having the go-ahead to let it fly. 

Per 40 minutes, Herbert Harrigan is fourth among forwards in 3-point attempts and seventh in makes. Copper is top 10 among all players in makes and attempts per game. Sophie Cunningham is shooting 36.4% on 4.4 3-point attempts per game while filling in as a forward. Even Bertsch has occasionally gotten in on the action. 

Three-point shooting is a strength the Mercury have displayed time and time again, especially in their win over the Las Vegas Aces when they made 16-of-33 long-range attempts.

“We want to get to the paint, and we want to shoot threes,” Tibbetts said. “… Obviously, you know, we’re not going to shoot 48% from three every night. That was a big reason why we won the game, but we’re gonna keep shooting them. And I think they believe in that. They believe in the work that they’re putting in, so we’re gonna stay with it.”

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With all of Tibbetts’ prior coaching experience coming from the NBA, it’s no surprise how much of an emphasis he puts on three-point shooting. In the last 10 years, the value of three-point shooting in men’s basketball has increased exponentially, and Tibbetts brings that philosophy with him to the WNBA.

“I think it’s just more educating our group on, you know, what the efficiency of points per shot and how important the rim is and how important that three is,” Tibbetts said. “I don’t want to take away from mid-range shots. … you know, there’s a time and place for mid-range shots … but getting your role players to know that we want rim and three I think are extremely important. So we haven’t set a number like, hey, we want less than 8 mid-range shots, but, you know, we continually talk about 30 to 35 threes a game.”

The Mercury’s ability to connect from deep will continue to be one of the main deciding factors in their success this season. Every player on the roster can be a threat with the ball in their hands when they set their feet behind the three-point line. But if they can’t consistently make threes night in and night out, then Tibbetts’s insistence on racking up deep ball attempts may just be the Mercury’s downfall.

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Written by Tia Reid

Tia Reid covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. Her other work has also appeared on NCAA.com, College Gym News, Cronkite News/Arizona PBS and the Walter Cronkite Sports Network. Tia is a senior at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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