August 21, 2020 

There are no easy answers for what ails the Phoenix Mercury

At 6-6, the Mercury are right back where they started, and a loss to the Sparks on Wednesday night only reinforced that.

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PALMETTO, FL- AUGUST 19: Skylar Diggins-Smith #4 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Sparks on August 19, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Down 24-10 at the end of the first quarter of what would eventually be an 83-74 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks, Diana Taurasi slammed the ball down in frustration and quickened her pace toward the bench to blow off some steam. It was the first of a few outbursts from the fiery competitor, now healthy again and in control of the Mercury offense, but still searching for direction.

The next reaction came in the third quarter when Taurasi was called for a technical foul and chewed out the referee. Whereas the first was quiet and mostly internal, this blowout ignited a Mercury run that brought them within two points midway through the fourth quarter. But by that point, it was too late. 

“There were some questionable calls, but basketball is a game of runs, and each team is going to have their run,” said forward Alanna Smith postgame. “We lost the game in the first half.”

Taurasi’s frustration illustrated what is clear about the Mercury, now 6-6. The team, which was considered a title contender heading into the season, is not where it wants or needs to be. 

Rarely has Phoenix gotten a great game from all three of its stars, and on Wednesday it was Skylar Diggins-Smith who was a paltry 2-9 from the field with four turnovers while Brittney Griner was out-played by Los Angeles’ superstar frontcourt of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. 

Worse yet, Phoenix’s lack of energy is a through-line in everyone, connecting not only this season’s six losses but many the past few years. This is a team that needs a kick in the butt just to dig in and find its passion; a group that only seems to play hard when it has to. 

“They’ve gotta make sure they’re engaged and put away anything that’s getting in their way to get there,” said head coach Sandy Brondello. “Me yelling at halftime, that can’t always be the answer. I was really proud of them that they started playing the right way in the second half. They were playing together and that’s all we can ask for.”

The second half saw Phoenix, charged up after the Taurasi technical, outscore the Sparks by 7, and dictated the tempo of the game. They even cut the lead from 12 to two in the fourth period in a matter of seconds after a flurry of threes from Taurasi and Bria Hartley. Flashes of potential like that have been equally short all year long.

“It’s coming to a point where we can’t come out here and get moral victories, we have to come ready to play for the full 40 minutes,” Hartley said postgame. “We’re too talented of a group for that.”

With just 10 games left on the calendar, the Mercury are suddenly not even guaranteed a playoff spot. One would expect they rally back to play in a single-elimination first-round game, but it will likely feel like deja vu after lethargy plopped them into the eighth seed in 2019 and handed them a blowout from Chicago.

Mercury players said all along they would need an adjustment period, and surely the best teams in the WNBA this season have benefited from continuity. Integrating Diggins-Smith and Hartley, as well as two new assistant coaches, was going to be a challenge all along. But the team is now the same number of games over .500 as they were on opening night when this same Sparks squad beat them the first time.

“We should be better than a .500 team,” Brondello said. “We dug that hole, but that’s our problem, that’s our fault. The coaches will just keep demanding and get the right combinations out there to stay in the game. Sometimes we get in there and we just don’t have enough energy.”

It’s a familiar problem for these Mercury with no familiar answer. The reality is they just haven’t brought it most nights. Having a Big Three or interesting young depth matters very little when the lack of cohesion is so glaring. The problems run deeper than missed shots or poor defensive execution. 

These Mercury simply struggle to consistently find the will to win. Without that, they might as well start preparing for 2021.

“Six and six, that’s not where we want to be,” Brondello. “The last 10 games, we have to make every game be like a knockout game.”

Written by Brendon Kleen

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