June 14, 2021
Three straight losses land Phoenix Mercury ‘in the mud’
'We have to be the first ones to throw that first punch'
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
The well-worn basketball cliché that it is a game of runs often is applied on an in-game basis. But it can easily be applied across a stretch of games during a long season.
And make no mistake about it: right now, the Phoenix Mercury are in the thick of a bad run on multiple levels that’s manifested in a 3-game losing streak and their record falling below .500 to 5-6.
“We’re grinding it, and we’re in the mud at the moment,” head coach Sandy Brondello said.
While there’s a bit of understanding that Diana Taurasi has been out with a fracture in her sternum and still is at least week away from returning to the team, the Mercury won three of their first four games without her and showed tremendous fight in back-to-back come-from-behind wins over the Chicago Sky in Chicago on June 1 and in Phoenix June 3.
But the last week saw the Mercury fall into some deep holes early on in games, really struggle to make shots from deep and unable to provide solid offensive help to their two remaining healthy superstars, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Britney Griner. Three losses — two in a row to Dallas on June 8 and 11, and an 85-83 loss to the Sabrina Ionescu-less Liberty on June 13, all at home — have left the team bewildered.
Never one to mince her words, Skylar Diggins-Smith had a message she wanted to send, both to herself and to her team, after the performance on June 13.
“We have to approach the game like we haven’t done shit yet, because we haven’t,” Diggins-Smith. “When we approach these games, we need to be thirsty. We need to be hungry. We need to be the ones that have a chip on our shoulder when we start these games.
“We’re a team that’s trying to do shit, we haven’t done shit yet. You can’t just put the jersey on and expect it to open up for you, or just give you magical powers. We have to be the ones that are the aggressors on both sides of the basketball.”
And that starts … with the starts to these games.
Beginning games in ‘embarrassing,’ ‘disrespectful’ fashion
It’s been almost the exact same story for three games in a row. The Mercury have come out of the gates sluggish on the offensive side and found themselves trailing by a healthy margin after 10 minutes.
“It’s my job, as a leader, to make sure we’re a better first quarter team,” Diggins-Smith said. “It’s really been our first quarter starts that’s been digging us in a hole, and then we get a sense of urgency when we get down double-digits and fight back, make up for it in 1-2 minutes. But we have to start the game better.”
The deficits have grown rather large rather quickly each night, and in hindsight, only trailing by six on June 8 against Dallas was a quality start. Their last two games, the Mercury have had double-digit deficit after the opening 10 minutes: 11 against Wings on June 11 (which got as high as 14 in the quarter) and 12 against the Liberty on June 13. And to Brondello, even with the frantic comeback and close result, the first quarter was the reason they lost.
“The result, it happened with how we came out in that first quarter again, not having the mindset and aggressiveness right from the beginning,” Brondello said. “We’ve had some poor starts, we’ve got to get better. The second half, the rest, I thought was good.”
There’s clearly a lot of fight in this Phoenix team, as they’ve staged several comebacks from down double-digits within games, including on June 13, going on a 20-3 run in the final minute of the second quarter and the opening five minutes of the third to completely erase a 17-point deficit. They’ve come back from down 10 with three minutes to go, down 13 with seven minutes to go, and even turned an 11-point deficit into a two-point deficit on June 8 in just a little more than a minute. But that fight isn’t kicking into gear for the Mercury until they’re down.
“We have that dog and that fire inside of us, but we just wait until we’re down 10 because we can get it back in a minute,” said guard Sophie Cunningham. “We just have to start like that and punch the other team in the gut first before they do it to us. Once we do that, we’ll be good, but it’s just our energy and our effort and our passion. We have to be the first ones to throw that first punch.”
But even in the silver lining of the fight back, it’s only highlight that perhaps the most surprising part to the Mercury’s start to the season is the 1-5 record at home in front of what the team believes is one of the best home environments in the league. Diggins-Smith found the comeback to be a good sign of energy, but also indicative of what the team hasn’t been able to do consistently.
“I thought in that second half, especially in the first five minutes — that’s the energy we need to start the game with, especially at home,” Diggins-Smith said. “That’s been disappointing. To perform like this, it’s embarrassing. To perform like this in front of the home crowd— the X-factor’s been great, keep showing up, keep showing up, they were loud tonight.
“It’s disrespectful. We disrespect the game when we don’t approach it with a sense of urgency in the first quarter. That’s something we need to do better, and that’s something that’s on my mind.”
Brondello also seemed to indicate a feeling that her team didn’t enter their games this week prepared for who they were facing, especially given where the Mercury’s place in the standings is.
“In the end, it’s just having a little bit of respect for your opponent and coming out with a little bit more energy for 40 minutes,” Brondello said. “We haven’t arrived, we haven’t done anything yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do, so we have to make sure we have total respect for our opponents because, hey, we’re right in the middle of the pack for the rest of them.”
And while not every player agreed with Brondello’s assessment, Diggins-Smith seemed to agree, adding that, “Every team in this league could blow you out. There’s no team in this league … if you look at the standings, every team could beat you. We have to approach the game with more spiciness, we have to approach the game with more sense of urgency, we have to approach the game like we haven’t done shit yet, because we haven’t.”
Brondello is clearly hoping that a quick road trip to Los Angeles to take on the Sparks twice in a row on June 16 and 18 will allow the team to find a way to fix the slow starts. She’s got a few other tweaks she’s contemplating, too.
“We’re just not bringing any kind of energy — we can’t rely on the fans,” Brondello said. “We’ve got to bring our own energy, that’s where it starts, and it starts from the tip-off. I don’t know whether I need to shake up that starting lineup just to get a little bit more energy or not. But it’s just so flat out there. Disappointing, 1 through 5. We’ve got to be better.”
No one’s supplementing Diggins-Smith & Griner offensively
While not ideal, Phoenix certainly seemed built to withstand an injury to one of their three superstars. And you certainly can’t blame either Diggins-Smith or Griner for the team’s losing streak here.
Griner and Diggins-Smith are each averaging more than 18 points per game on the season, but since Taurasi left the lineup, they’re each above 20 points per game, with Griner at 22.6 and Diggins-Smith at 21.0. Even in the last three losses, the duo’s combined for just under 45 points a game (Griner with 25, Diggins-Smith with 19.3).
But the Mercury have needed somebody else to step up and score the ball a bit, and that just hasn’t happened anywhere close enough to be successful. In fact, those players have combined to score just 40% of the Mercury’s points in their three losses.
“We need someone else,” Brondello said. “Who’s going to be that third person to step up? Because we’re putting a lot on BG and Sky at the moment to carry us.”
Cunningham added, “Sky and BG, they’re the only ones playing good for us right now, and they’re playing great ball. All of us, we’ve just got to step up, knock down our shots and stop thinking so much. We’re all good, we’ve just got to go out there and play free, play the game and keep it simple.
“Teams can do whatever they want to BG and Sky, but they’re such elite players that they’re going to get there. But all of us have to find a way to step up and win a ballgame.”
Even when she was playing hurt for two of her four games, Taurasi still put up 15.8 points per game on the offensive end. In the seven games without her, the only player with double-digit points per game is Kia Nurse, with 12.3. Their other starters during this time, Megan Walker and Brianna Turner, have combined for just 13.5 points per game over those seven games.
It’s gotten particular difficult on the offensive game for that trio in this three-game losing streak, too. They’ve averaged 20.7 points per game and only made 20-of-72 attempts from the field and 6-of-36 shots from deep, with the majority of those shots coming from Nurse and Walker.
“Kia Nurse and Megan, they’re just struggling with their shot,” Brondello said. “I’m not saying they’re bad shots — I think some of them they’re too early. But we’ve just got to make them. We’ve got to make those shots. It’s the only way – you’ve got to see the ball going in the hole, get some confidence out of that.”
The Mercury play their bench fewer than any other team in the league, with bench players averaging less than 10 minutes per game when they play, so it’s not a surprise that the bench also averages the fewest points per game in the league at 11.6. But with Taurasi out, the points off the bench has been dwindling night-after-night, including a 0-point night in their win over Chicago on June 3.
To put it bluntly: if your jersey doesn’t say Griner or Diggins-Smith on the back, it’s been rough offensively.
“These next two games before Diana get back, we need to find a little bit more from the bench as well, but also from the starters,” Brondello said. “Have to stay positive, have to stay focused. If your shot’s not falling, keep doing other things and maybe relaxing a little bit.”
… but the whole team isn’t making 3-pointers
Even as the Phoenix metroplex is at the beginning of a massive heat wave (highs at 117 all week, pray for this reporter), the Mercury are currently ice-cold from 3-point range. In their three-game losing streak, the Mercury have made just 13-of-69 shots from deep, a stunning 18.8%.
The Mercury made just 5-of-25 3-pointers in the loss to Dallas on June 8, and despite the game easily being their best performance of the week, it was the misses from deep that ended up feeling like the difference in the game.
But even as they struggled in other aspects of their game, the deep-ball shooting form hasn’t come back to them yet, as they had a 3-for-20 night on June 11 and a 5-for-24 afternoon on June 13 (though they did get a made 3-pointer from Griner on June 13, just the third of her career). And what’s clearly frustrating is that the looks they’re getting are quality attempts, but they’re just not draining them.
“I think everybody’s just trying to get into their rhythm,” Diggins-Smith said. “I don’t necessarily think that we’re taking bad shots, I think we’re getting good shots. I think we’re missing, myself included. I don’t really know what to say, you just have to continue to find ways to figure it out at the end. You just have to take it.”
The shooting from outside has been perhaps the biggest difference on a night-to-night basis in the team’s chances to win. In their five victories, the Mercury are making 36.4% from deep (36-for-104), while they’re shooting just 23.7% from 3-point range in their six losses (31-for-131).
For the whole season, they are one of just two teams shooting below 30% from 3-point range for the season at 28.5% (only Indiana is lower than them, at 27.8%). And it’s not a frequency issue, either, as Phoenix is putting up more than 21 deep balls per game. Looking at the WNBA’s hexagonal shooting chart map, the entire 3-point range is deep blue, meaning the Mercury are shooting at least nine percentage points worse than the league average from those spots on the floor.
Ask any shooter the way to get out of a poor shooting stretch and you’ll almost always get the same answer, and that was no different from Cunningham or Diggins-Smith: Just keep putting those shots up.
“We put ‘em up every day, we just have to continue to shoot with confidence,” Diggins-Smith said. “The hardest part’s making a move and getting to the open shot, so that’s what we want. Individually, we just got to shoot with confidence. We can’t hesitate — even if you miss one, that’s the shot if you’re open, or if not, pump-fake, go to the basket, do something else with it.
“We’re creating open opportunities for each other, and that’s all you can ask for. We just have to execute and knock them down. I wouldn’t say, ‘To hell with the whole thing,’ I just think we need to lock in and be better shooters and make shots. This is a shot-making league, you have to make shots in this league.”
Cunningham added, “With that 3-point shooting, you just got to shoot your way out of it, and it’ll come.”
Even though Phoenix is currently anticipating Taurasi returning to the lineup in time for their next home game, the third game in the three-straight against the Sparks on June 26, they seem to really need to see a few 3-pointers drop before that point.
But if this week has proven anything to the Mercury, though, it’s the need to be ready to go from the opening tip on a nightly basis. If not, this losing streak could a little bit longer.
“We have to get ready. We have a tough LA team three times in a row, and they’re the same — like Dallas, like New York, these teams are hungry,” Diggins-Smith said. “If you don’t match their intensity, you will get slapped out the gym. We need to approach our game with intensity. Tomorrow, we just go back to the drawing board, figure out how we have to get better and prepare for LA.”