October 11, 2021 

Fatigue a factor in Mercury dropping Game 1 of WNBA Finals

Phoenix hopes two days of rest, Sophie Cunningham returning will help in Game 2

PHOENIX — Tipping off Game 1 of the WNBA Finals only 40 hours after they clinched their place in it, it was pretty clear that exhaustion was a major factor in the Phoenix Mercury’s 91-77 loss to the Chicago Sky on Sunday at the Footprint Center.

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“I don’t want to make excuses, but we were fatigued,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “I understand that. The second quarter, we only lost by three in the second half, but if you’re not physically tired, then when you get mentally tired, the execution wasn’t really there where we needed it to be on both ends of the floor.”

Like they have in every game in the postseason, the Mercury came out strong in the first quarter and held a lead. But the legs looked and felt heavy in the second quarter, as the Sky went on a 17-2 run in the final five minutes to carry an 11-point lead into half.

“We thought we started the game really well—focus, with a lot of energy, and then they just took it to a different level,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. “That had nothing to do with us being tired. If you followed them for the last month, they were just playing at a different level. That’s what they did today for 40 minutes. And we didn’t. That was all for today.”

On the second quarter specifically, Brondello added, “They didn’t do anything differently. It was just us a little bit more rushed. We turned the ball over way too much, and it allowed them to get easy baskets in transition. They just went to another level. We couldn’t sustain where we’re at. We kind of went down and lost our way a little bit.”

Phoenix committed 10 turnovers in the first half, including six in the second quarter. Taurasi herself turned it over six times on the day and five times in the first half, which she assessed frankly afterward.

“I was pretty pathetic with the basketball today. For playing so much basketball, that was pretty pathetic and that’s on me,” Taurasi said. “We can’t turn the ball over like that, especially not in the Finals. That’s just me being a bad basketball player. We’ll adjust some things, and hopefully we’ll be in better positions to get out of those traps on the court.”

Phoenix was playing without Sophie Cunningham (left calf strain) for the third straight game, though the team expects her to be ready to play in Game 2 on Wednesday. Without her and Kia Nurse (torn ACL), the Mercury’s lack of options at small forward was exposed by Chicago’s Kahleah Copper. Brondello felt like Copper was “going to be the key to the game and really was,” as she scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, including a career-high five offensive rebounds.

“She’s had [a] great playoffs,” Brondello said. “We emphasized her a fair bit in our pregame talk. She got in positions where she made some shots. The team defense wasn’t exactly where we needed it to be, and obviously her offensive rebounds hurt us as well. We have to regroup. Sophie coming back, that certainly gives us another body to be able to try a different option on her.”

Brondello later commented that Nurse “could have done a good job out there on Copper, I think.” But perhaps where the Mercury miss Nurse even more is on the offensive end. Phoenix did get positive scoring contributions from three Olympic gold medalists, with Brittney Griner leading the team with 20 points, Taurasi scoring 17 and Skylar Diggins-Smith adding 15.

But the rest of the team combined for just 25 points, and although the Mercury were averaging 21.8 3-pointers a game in the regular season, they only took 15 attempts from deep on the day—and 10 of those came from Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. There were only two games all season—regular season or playoffs—in which the Mercury took fewer attempts from deep. It would sure help the offensive rhythm and spacing for Cunningham to return and be ready to fire away from beyond the arc.

“At least we’ve got Sophie coming back, and it gives us another option just with energy, her activity and her ability to make shots, so that will give us something,” Brondello said. “But it’s not one person that needs to step up, it’s all of us, and we’ll be better prepared for the next game.”

How Cunningham blends back in will be just a small part of what should be a fascinating coaching matchup going forward, particularly with how well these two staffs know each other. Sky head coach James Wade coached with Brondello on UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2017-18, both serving as assistants to Brondello’s husband, Olaf Lange—who is now a Sky assistant. It’s rare to see WNBA coaches interacting at the end of each playoff game instead of just after the series ends, but there were hugs between the staffs after this game and there likely will be after each game, a sign of the deep respect and love across the coaching ranks.

“We’ve just got to be ready—we know that they’re going to be better prepared and they’re going to be more motivated, especially going down a game,” Wade said. “Sandy is one of the best coaches in the league, so I know she’s going to have them ready and just adjusting and adapting to different situations. I know they’ll be ready.”

Asked to find a positive to take away from the game, Taurasi said she’s “not a positive person” and passed the question to Griner, who could only come up with one answer.

“It’s a series, that’s what’s positive,” Griner said. “It’s a series. We’ll be able to fight another day. That’s what it is. Honestly, that’s it.”

And after such a quick turnaround from the semifinals, there are now two days to get some sorely needed rest and recovery ahead of Game 2 on Wednesday night at 6 p.m. Pacific/9 p.m. Eastern. The Mercury will be completely off on Monday, and Brondello even said she didn’t think there was a need for her players to do anything beyond the basics at practice on Tuesday.

“It’s been a grind, [with] the playoffs being back-to-back,” Brondello said. “We played that extra game, obviously a very emotional game on Friday night, so we’re going to be off tomorrow. We’ve just got to freshen up. That’s what it is. We’ve been in these situations before. This is a team that’s playing extremely well. We’ve got to prepare for them.”

It would be wise for the Mercury to find a way to get a win in their actual home arena of the Footprint Center, where they’ve lost 11 times in the regular season and playoffs in 2021. In fact, even with all of their arena issues in these playoffs, the only venue the Mercury have not won a game in during this playoff run is the Footprint Center.

But the reason they’re still playing is that they have won 15 out of 20 road games between the regular season and playoffs. Now, no matter what happens Wednesday in Game 2, they’ll have to get road win #16 later in this series to win a championship.

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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