May 12, 2022 

‘Punch them in the mouth’ Phoenix Mercury’s motto after the season opener

Mercury were punched in the season opener but now they're doing the punching

As the second week of the WNBA season begins, teams are looking for any way to start the season on the right foot. Unfortunately, things started off for the Phoenix Mercury in a lackluster fashion. Despite the signing of the reigning scoring champion Tina Charles and trading for all-star Diamond DeShields from the Chicago Sky, something was off. Even with four all-stars in their starting lineup, the most out of every other WNBA team, they lacked what Phoenix has always brought every game. Intensity. In the first game for Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard, the intensity she instilled appeared to run on empty.

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Mercury’s game against the Las Vegas Aces was a rocky start, with the Aces’ biggest lead at 28 points in the second quarter, resulting in a 54-32 deficit at halftime. Vegas out-rebounded the Mercury, 25-9 in the first half. After Diana Taurasi led the team in total rebounds with four, Nygaard reflected on the poor performance on the boards. “Rebounding is sort of just a mindset and commitment,” Nygaard said.

That commitment was there in the second half, as the Mercury out-rebounded the Aces, 17-13. Phoenix scored 31 points in the third quarter, falling one point short of their first-half total. Nygaard explained what had changed. “We picked up our intensity a little bit and our spacing was better,” Nygaard said. “This is a league where you got to make shots and Vegas made a lot tonight.” Despite the changes, the Aces had elite shooting with over 50% from the field and from three. They won convincingly, 106-88.

Phoenix’s game against the Seattle Storm was a different story, as they were the ones punching the opposing team in the mouth. In the 97-77 Mercury victory, the infectious intensity spread to every player on the team, even to the coaching staff. Nygaard stood up for her ten-time all-star in the third quarter after she was fouled hard. “If they’re getting hit, I’m gonna get in there,” Nygaard said. “Nobody’s gonna be pushing on our player without me saying something. I’m gonna get right into it.”

Skylar Diggins-Smith had the best performance of any Phoenix player Friday night, posting 25 points on 10/18 shooting. She mentioned before the game against Seattle, despite her offensive prowess that the lack of defensive resistance was the downfall. “Defensively, I thought in the first half; we didn’t give a lot of resistance,” Diggins-Smith said. Typically, Brianna Turner helped anchor the defense for the Phoenix Mercury. She posted 9.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 31 minutes last season. However, Turner and her new teammate Diamond DeShields were not present for Friday’s game. They were traveling back to the United States from overseas play.

Nonetheless, Diggins-Smith explained that the team’s performance against Vegas fueled the fire. “It’s no excuse on our part; you shouldn’t have to coach effort or energy on us,” Diggins-Smith said. “We have to start that first-quarter punching somebody in the mouth and not the other way around.”

After four days of preparation, the Mercury obtained vital pieces of their team. Both DeShields and Turner attended Monday’s practice ahead of their match against the Storm. As a result, the team came out swinging, posting over 57% from the field and from three in the win. They also had four starters score 10+ points (Taurasi, Charles, Diggins-Smith and Shey Peddy).

This marks the first time this season since Nygaard took over as head coach that she had a nearly full roster. The first-year coach explained their importance and the intangibles they bring to every game. “They’re savvy, they read things, they understand things, and they communicate really well,” Nygaard said. “And of course, they’ve ridden up our intensity with their skill level, but also with their experience. We’re just really excited to finally have our whole team together.”

The team benefited, to say the least. Charles had her best game as a Mercury, with 22 points, 11 rebounds and connected on all (three) three-pointers. She spoke about Taurasi’s trust in her and how that elevates her play. “She [Diana] has high standards for me, and I think definitely is going to elevate my game this season,” Charles said. Those high standards, combined with the increased intensity, have the Mercury on pace to be one of the best teams in the WNBA.

Written by Hayden Cilley

Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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