May 19, 2024 

What to take away from the Phoenix Mercury’s opening week

The Mercury open the season 1-1 under new head coach Nate Tibbetts

The Nate Tibbetts era for the Phoenix Mercury is officially underway. In the first week of the WNBA regular season, the Mercury faced two different teams with two different outcomes. 

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They opened their season on the road, taking on the reigning champions Las Vegas Aces. They played behind for most of the game but managed to close the gap late. Despite the comeback attempt, Phoenix ultimately fell 89-80. 

Then, on Saturday, Tibbetts and company picked up their first win of the season over a quietly rising Atlanta Dream squad. Although they were in front for most of the game, the Mercury needed some late-game heroics from guards Sophie Cunningham and Natasha Cloud to secure the 88-85 victory.

Through both matchups, we learned a lot about the 2024 Phoenix Mercury. Here are the key takeaways from their first week of the season.

Kahleah Copper is just the offensive catalyst that Phoenix needed

Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper makes a 3-point symbol with her hand as she backpedals to play defense
Mercury guard Kahleah Copper (2) and Natasha Cloud (0) celebrate a three pointer during the home opener against the Dream at the Footprint Center on Saturday, May 18, 2024. (Photo credit: Patrick Breen/The Republic)

In just her second game in a Mercury uniform guard Kahleah Copper has already reached a new career high in points. Her 38 points in Saturday’s win came on the heels of Tuesday’s 19-point showing in Las Vegas. Her 57 points through the first two games are the most in Mercury history through the first two games, passing Cappie Pondexter’s 55-point start in 2008.

Copper has clearly established herself as the Mercury’s primary scorer. Saturday’s performance came on an 11-for-20 shooting night from the field in addition to a 13-for-15 showing at the free throw line.

“I was just put in a very good position,” Copper said. “You know, I try not to force anything. Our offense, we have so many different options within it. So I was just playing within our offense and just trying to be aggressive like my teammates were just encouraging me to be.”

Copper is not only an asset offensively. She’s also averaged 5.0 rebounds through the first two games, helping improve Phoenix’s performance in an area it struggled in last season. Her length and versatility have also helped contribute in Phoenix’s defensive sets. The 6-foot-1 guard has picked up several difficult defensive assignments this season, including Atlanta guards Rhyne Howard and Allisha Gray on Saturday.

Copper’s contributions on both sides of the ball will undoubtedly be crucial for the Mercury over the course of this season.

The Mercury’s defense can cause headaches in the half-court, but it’s far from foolproof

Even without starting point guard Chelsea Gray, many expected the Aces to start off the year with a dominant showing Tuesday. Although they eventually got the win, the Mercury were a thorn in their side for much of the game, especially on defense.

After his team got outscored 29-14 in the first quarter, Tibbetts switched to a zone defense that Aces head coach Becky Hammon didn’t have the answer to, at least not right away. The Aces scored just 13 points in the second quarter and went into the locker room frustrated by Phoenix’s defensive alignment. They figured it out in spurts for the rest of the game, but Phoenix gave the rest of the league a glimpse of how challenging its zone can be to crack.

Tibbetts used the zone occasionally against Atlanta as well, but the defensive intensity overall led the way to the win. The Mercury turned the Dream over 13 times with 10 steals. 

“When I tell you the first, what, two, three days of training camp we did not run offense,” Cloud said. “We focused on defense, understanding that we can have all the scorers in the world, but if we’re not getting stops on the other end of the court, that [stuff] don’t matter. So we’ve all bought into that.”

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Despite the intensity displayed in half-court defensive scenarios, there are still weak points in Phoenix’s defense. Two of those are on fast breaks and in transition. Tuesday, the Mercury gave up 14 fastbreak points. Saturday, it was 12. Phoenix won’t be able to settle into its formidable defense if it can’t get back and stop the ball.

Another concern is the amount of fouls that Phoenix’s relentless style of defense comes with. In their first game, Copper and Taurasi were one foul away from fouling out. Saturday, Cloud came close to being disqualified.

Against Phoenix, the Aces shot 29 free throws while the Dream shot 27 for a league-high average of 28 attempts per game. For Phoenix to compete, its key players need to be able to play without limitations in close situations. It’s also key to limit their opponents’ chances for uncontested points at the free-throw line. The aggression is advantageous, but it must be controlled.

“We’re gonna continue to be more solid without fouling, but that aggressiveness on the defensive end for us is not going to stop,” Cloud said. “Referees are going to know every time that the Phoenix Mercury come out to play, they’re gonna be tough-nosed. They’re gonna get into it from the start of tip. And that’s just how it’s going to be. But we can be more disciplined down the stretch at keeping people off the free-throw line.”

Defensive aggression is one of the pillars Tibbetts appears to want to build his team culture around. So far, that mindset has set in well with the players. There’s surely room for improvement after just two games, but it’s also an impressive turnaround for a team with the league’s worst defensive rating in 2023.

“We understand that we will be able to score, but [we’re] setting the foundation and hanging our hats on being defenders,” Copper said after the Mercury’s preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks.

An unsuspected post rotation can surge even more with Griner’s return

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Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham celebrates a 3-pointer in a game against the Washington Mystics Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2023. (Photo credit: Dominic Allegra | The Next)

With the re-signing of Brittney Griner and the trade for Rebecca Allen in the offseason, Phoenix’s starting posts were set coming into the year. Questions remained surrounding the bench unit, especially with the departures of Meg Gustafson in free agency and Brianna Turner, who was moved in the Copper trade. 

Then, shortly before the season began, the Mercury announced Griner would miss time with a toe fracture on her left foot. This brought up even more questions – enter Natasha Mack.

She joined the team on a training camp contract and is now in the starting lineup in Griner’s absence. It didn’t take long for her to reel in double-digit rebounds, recording 11 on Saturday. She also has seven assists and five blocks through the first two games of this season.

She’s a key factor in the aforementioned defense, defending the paint and protecting the rim from the plethora of talented post players in the league.

“She’s gonna get more and more comfortable in this role, more and more comfortable being a WNBA player,” Tibbetts said. “She’s playing with great players around her. They believe in her they trust her … She gets deflections. She blocks shots. Her conditioning is going to continue to get better. But she’s going against some post players that she’s never gone against at that level. So I think she’s going to continue to get in better shape. Get more comfortable playing with the group. But she’s been she’s been huge for us.”

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As for Allen, she’s performed as advertised. She opened the season with a 14-point, seven-rebound performance against the Aces. Her ability to stretch the floor and shoot the ball from deep helped keep the Mercury in that game. As a defender, she’s versatile and can effectively defend guards and forwards while adding additional rim protection alongside Mack.

Yet, the most intriguing and arguably impactful “post player” given the circumstances has been Cunningham. Similar to Allen, Cunningham’s versatility has allowed her to play a stretch-four in small-ball lineups in previous seasons with the Mercury. Already this year, Cunningham’s had to play the five, battling in the paint with All-WNBA forwards and centers and anchoring the Mercury’s zone defense. 

In the final three minutes of Saturday’s win, Cunningham hit two 3-point shots, including the go-ahead basket. Despite filling a much different role than her previous years within the organization, she’s still adding unique value to the Mercury’s product on the court.

“What Sophie does won’t always show up on this box score,” Cloud said. “She comes down. She plays hard every possession on both ends of the floor. We asked her to play the four. We asked her to play the five a lot of times … For her to come up with those two big 3s at the end, just a testament to who she is for this team, for us. You want to talk about just a solid player that you’re you know what you’re going to get from every single night. That shit was electrifying and it gets us going.”

Despite being untraditional, this trio has helped Phoenix perform on par with their opponents in the post. Against Las Vegas, the Mercury scored a respectable 24 points in the paint against the likes of A’ja Wilson and Kiah Stokes. Saturday, they won the battle down low, outscoring Atlanta 34-32 in the paint. 

The trio has also helped lead the charge on the boards. The Mercury tied the Aces in rebounds, including picking up 10 on the offensive end. They out-rebounded Atlanta 38-33 led by Mack’s 11 boards and an additional six rebounds from Cunningham.

Even undersized and thin in depth, this unit has competed. With the eventual return of Griner looming, the Mercury’s performance in the paint and on the boards offensively and defensively could skyrocket.

Diana Taurasi still has plenty of gas left in the tank

Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi smiles talking to teammates
Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi smiles while talking to teammates before a game versus the Washington Mystics at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Even at age 41 in year 20, Diana Taurasi is still proving herself to be an offensive threat. In Phoenix’s season opener, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer posted 23 points, going 7-for-11 from beyond the arc. On Tuesday, she didn’t perform as well, scoring 15 on 4-for-15 shooting, but she still contributed as the team’s second-leading rebounder with seven boards.

As the team’s most veteran presence, Taurasi helps lead on and off the court. She helps mentor the younger players, bringing them up to speed and challenging them in practice to prepare them for the physicality they’ll face in games.

Despite her age, Taurasi is not a player that opposing defenses can just shrug off. She is still an active part of the Mercury’s offense who can play freely, especially with Copper there to take some of the pressure and to draw opponents’ focus. The steep dropoff expected to come with age hasn’t hit Taurasi just yet.

This year’s Mercury don’t back down easily

Against the Aces in the season opener on Tuesday, Phoenix trailed by as much as 18 at one point. With 3:15 left in the fourth quarter, it trailed by 12. In the following two minutes, the Mercury cut the deficit to three points. Although they ended up losing by nine, Phoenix never gave up. They pushed the defending champions for 40 minutes in the first game for either side.

The Mercury controlled the majority of the game against the Dream on Saturday, but with a 20-4 run, Atlanta took the lead and extended it to seven points by the 3:15 mark. But just like Tuesday, Phoenix fought back. The Mercury ended the game on a 14-4 run en route to victory.

“We came to the huddle like, ‘Game of runs,’ like the calmness, the sense of calm that we felt in those moments, I [was] like, ‘We about to win this,’ like it was never a moment where we were disconnected,” Copper said of the team during Atlanta’s run in the fourth quarter. “…And when we talk about our culture, and what we’re trying to build and what we want to be in the toughest moments, when you can look to your left and look to your right and know that your teammates [are] like, ‘Let’s go,’ like that’s what you want to be a part of.”

The Mercury never stopped responding. They competed all the way until the end both times, despite the differing results. They proved that neither deficit was too much for them to overcome, even with time running out. Ultimately, they set the tone for the season. That resilience will be important for the many other back-and-forth games Phoenix finds itself in. Part of being a winning team is being able to pull out those types of wins, and Phoenix already has that experience under its belt in this young campaign.

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Written by Tia Reid

Tia Reid covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. Her other work has also appeared on, 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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