August 30, 2021 

Diggins-Smith, Turner leading Mercury surge into title contention

Phoenix's two Fighting Irish alums are leading the six-game winning streak

Everywhere you look around the WNBA, you’re bound to find former University of Connecticut Huskies on rosters spots and coaching staffs. But for the Phoenix Mercury, it’s been their two Notre Dame Fighting Irish alums that have led the way after the Olympic break.

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Both Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brianna Turner have been playing some of their best basketball to fuel the Mercury’s six-game winning streak. The win streak has not only pushed the Mercury firmly into the playoffs. But it also gives them a fighting chance to even crack the Top 4 seeds.

Let’s take a look at the ways each have helped this win streak happen.

Turner’s offensive surge makes her an all-around threat

The third-year forward has already become renowned throughout the league for her defensive abilities — you don’t get selected to the WNBA All-Defense team in your second year by accident.

That’s only continued here recently, including efforts like locking up Atlanta guard Courtney Williams on Aug. 21 (4-for-16 from the field, nine points) and being the primary defender stopping New York center Natasha Howard on Aug. 25 (2-for-14 from the field, seven points).

But what’s been more noteworthy for the Mercury has been her growth on the offensive end. Turner’s displayed a comfort in the offense that’s left her more willing to take shots, even on a team with Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Diggins-Smith on it.

The result? Turner’s scored double-digit points in five of their six games post-Olympic break, averaging 10.5 points per game. She’s doing so efficiently, too, averaging eight shots per game.

To Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, it’s proof Turner’s taking the experience she’s had in the WNBA (she has started and played in every Phoenix game since Sept. 1, 2019) and continuing to grow her game.

“She just gets locked in,” Brondello said. “I like that she’s finding more ways, she’s reading the game a little bit better and getting into the right spots near the basket. That helps us when she’s a threat on that offensive end.”

She’s also averaging 12.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in the six-game winning streak, a sign that a growing offensive game is not going to take anything away from her defensively. The two-sided effort stood out in particular in the Aug. 25 win over the Liberty, as Turner ended up with a plus-minus of +37 — and tied for the fifth-highest plus-minus in Mercury history.

“Turner destroyed us. She just absolutely destroyed us,” said Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins after Aug. 25’s game. “She was front-and-center in the scout, she was front-and-center in the pregame talk. But their offense stalls and she goes and gets a cut or an offensive rebound or a transition layup. She got 15 rebounds today. We talked about not letting them get behind us, she got behind us on almost every possession.”

That’s Turner, in a nutshell: frustrating as all can be to her opponents, and everyone on Phoenix’s favorite teammate to have right now.

“She’s just an absolute monster — I keep saying that she’s my favorite player in the league,” Taurasi said. “I think just what she can do defensively, no one can do it in the league, where she can literally guard 1-through-5 and I will have the utmost confidence in her.

“And then offensively, she’s starting to find her groove a bit under the basket and find different ways where she can be efficient. She actually has really good hands down there, and we’ve been a little more vocal about making sure she’s aggressive, especially with all of the double teams we’re getting on the interior and on the perimeter.”

“Favorite player in the league” is high praise, coming from Taurasi, but it’s absolutely been warranted recently. And even on a team with three Olympic gold medal winners from this year, it’s clear that Turner is a vital piece that the Mercury couldn’t be successful without.

Diggins-Smith ‘rejuvenated’ and on a new mission

There certainly was a scare that went through the Mercury when Griner rolled her ankle with less than two minutes left on Aug. 25’s win over the Liberty. While the team was hopeful it wouldn’t be too serious that night and it does appear Griner will return to action on Aug. 31 against the Chicago Sky, the durable center missed her first game due to injury since 2017.

Without her, the Phoenix offense was bound to attack a little differently. When that’s the case, it helps to have an energetic and controlled left-hander, reading to slice into defenses all across the league.

Diggins-Smith has been on a roll recently, but Aug. 27 was perhaps her best showing yet to lead the Mercury to an 80-64 win. The final stat line: 27 points on 7-for-16 shooting, 2-for-4 from deep and a perfect 11-for-11 from the free-throw line, seven assists, four steals and zero turnovers.

“She’s been shooting the ball so well, especially since the Olympic break,” Brondello said. “I think she’s playing with really good poise — it’s not too fast going downhill but knows how to get to the rim and [she] finishes as well as anyone. Getting and-ones too. That’s what we needed tonight.”

Diggins-Smith primarily plays off the ball as a shooting guard alongside Taurasi. But Brondello has absolutely no fear in putting the ball in Diggins-Smith’s hands and letting her run the offense. And it’s clear Taurasi doesn’t, either.

“Once I got the feeling that I could get in the lane and go downhill in the second half, we opened it up in the third and the beginning of the fourth,” Diggins-Smith said. “Dee talks to me all the time and Dee tells me, ‘Just be a killer, just do your thing.’ That really puts a lot of confidence in me, in Sandy and in my teammates.”

She only played 80 seconds against the Fever on Aug. 17 before leaving the game with what appeared to be a pretty nasty-looking ankle roll. But she played the next game and hasn’t missed a beat since. These are her points-assists combinations in the Mercury’s last three games: 25-and-7 on Aug. 21, 27-and-5 on Aug. 25, 27-and-7 on Aug. 27. The two games in New York were enough for her to earn Western Conference Player of the Week.

“I told Sky earlier, when she turns the corner, I just stare because that’s freaking beautiful,” Turner said. “When she turns the corner and is driving down the lane, I’m like, ‘It’s either going to be a foul, a bucket, and-one,” something positive will happen. I think Sky has been playing so well for us. I’m really proud of her, really happy for her and I know she’s going to continue it.”

Brondello feels like it’s the best she’s seen Diggins-Smith play in her entire WNBA career.

“I keep saying to her, I think she’s playing with a little bit more poise, tune-out,” Brondello said. “The game’s coming to her. She’s just in a really good place. She’s happy and everyone respects her here and we let her be her. But she puts the hard work in, and when you put the hard work in, good things happen.”

And, while a bit counterintuitive than you’d expect, Diggins-Smith has actually used her Olympic experience — where she had a much smaller role than she does with Phoenix and played a lot less than her WNBA career average of almost 32 minutes a night — has given her more energy.

“I also came back just motivated, wanting to play and reconnect with my team and have an opportunity on the floor to compete,” Diggins-Smith said. “When I got back, I was excited to be back with my teammates and had a fire underneath me. Winning a gold medal, it really lit a fire underneath me to get better and to really lock in and see how I can help my team.

“I was rejuvenated, if you will, coming off the Olympic break.”

Playoff position secured, fight for seeding remains

With the winning streak up to six and a record of 15-10, it’s all-but-assured Phoenix of a playoff spot, thanks to tiebreaker advantages held over three of the four teams battling for the last few playoff spots (Los Angeles, New York and Washington). They can officially clinch their spot on Tuesday with either a Washington loss to Connecticut or by beating the 14-12 Sky.

But at this point, the playoff positioning is going to matter more. Phoenix is only a half-game behind Minnesota for the four-seed. And they also have the same amount of losses as Seattle, though the Storm have three more wins. The matchup with a surging Chicago team fresh off of two wins in Seattle will be huge for both team’s chances at getting up to a four-seed.

After Chicago, Phoenix will play back-to-back games in Indiana against the last-place Fever and head to Atlanta for one more against the Dream. After that? Home vs. Connecticut on Sept. 11, at Seattle on Sept. 17 and home against Las Vegas on Sept. 19, the final day of the season. If the Mercury want to have a chance at the 4-seed, it may take 20 wins … or even 21. There’s not a lot of room for a let-down game left, and everyone’s going to be needed.

“I say this all the time, but every year, it comes down to that last game, position-wise [for the standings],” Diggins-Smith said. “For us, we had our lineup going that we thought we would have at the beginning of the year. Now, we’ll see how BG goes, but we’ve just got to step up. It’s next-woman-up, and that’s really been our mindset.”

Griner should be good to go for Tuesday, and Bria Hartley is getting closer to game action, too. After all the struggles to get everyone healthy and playing together in the pre-Olympic break stretch, if this is the Mercury team that we’ll see the rest of the way, they should be considered a major factor in the title hunt.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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