October 13, 2021 

How the Phoenix Mercury can answer the bell in Game 2

'Nobody's in panic mode'

PHOENIX — Sure, there was a lot going on for the Phoenix Mercury in the run-up to Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday.

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They’d won their semifinal series against the Las Vegas Aces on Friday night, with just 40 hours between the end of Game 5 in Las Vegas and the start of Game 1 of the Finals in Phoenix. And in between that, their superstar Diana Taurasi welcomed a second child into the world, too.

But part of what made the victory so sweet in Game 5 was the collective journeys of the veteran-laden Mercury team that was reaching the Finals for the first time. Every player except for Taurasi and Brittney Griner is playing in the Finals for the first time.

And when your journey to reach this point is so winding, so arduous and so difficult, then that first time actually making that stage you’ve visualized and dreamed of being on can be a bit overwhelming.

“It was almost like an out-of-body experience because I was still trying to grasp it all,” Mercury forward Kia Vaughn told The Next on Tuesday. “But I think I’ve settled in more so for this second game to be like, ‘Yes, we’re here. We’ve worked hard and we belong here.’ I’ve played 12 years — well, 13 years and took a summer off. It’s a great feeling, and I just want to give as much as I can for this. I want it so much, I feel like I need to settle out, relax and let the game come to me.”

Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello agreed with the assessment generally, but noticed who it wasn’t affecting, too — no matter their circumstances.

“Definitely. I don’t think Diana or BG, but Sky, Kia Vaughn, some of the others. It’s very hard to get here,” Brondello said. “But for me, it’s exciting, but you can’t get too high or too low. We’ve got a job to do, we’ve just got to focus. It’s a 40-minute game. If anything, I don’t know how Diana played, after having a kid and all that stuff and no sleep.”

Of course, Vaughn wants this championship badly, but even if that manifests in energy in a different way for her, she noticed how much of an outlier Taurasi is, too.

“Our anxiety, everything is in there, because we want it a lot,” Vaughn said. “Everyone’s not Dee, obviously. You can’t just walk in and say, ‘Fuck it,’ it’s a mentality. Because she’s been here, she’s been grateful and blessed to have multiple. A lot of us, it’s a different stress level. But we should all be ready for the second one.”

Griner said there is “definitely a difference” in playing in the Finals, and it can be a hard thing to adjust to on the first time. But she doesn’t want anything to sound like she’s giving an excuse for the performance on Sunday.

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“I would love to say that’s what it was, just getting settled in and everything. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball,” Griner said. “That would be us finding a way to make an excuse. We could easily say fatigue, tired, but at the same time, we play ball for a living. We’ve all been there, done it. We let that one go. We gave up that lead, and once we gave up the lead, we were searching for something.”

Sure, Griner didn’t want to say fatigue was a factor and sound like she was coming up with an excuse, but she also admitted that, in watching back the film from Game 1, it was noticeable how heavy the Mercury players’ leges were.

“When you’re watching, you can you see it. We were definitely a step behind,” Griner said. “We were reacting, instead of acting. Like we got to act, not react, because if you react at this level, it’s too late.”

That quick turnaround — which Skylar Diggins-Smith called “ridiculous” during shootaround to The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland — did set up the Mercury to take Monday completely off and get back on the court for practice Tuesday, their first chance to practice in a week. It may also be their last chance, with Games 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the WNBA Finals scheduled to be played on an every-other-day pace from here. If the series goes the full length, it’ll mean the final four games are played in seven days.

But that’s why Phoenix kept off of its legs on Monday and tried to keep things light on Tuesday. And now, the return of Sophie Cunningham back into the fold matters all the more. After missing Games 4 and 5 of the semifinals and Game 1 of the Finals with a left calf strain, Cunningham will play on Wednesday, but Brondello knows she needs to be careful with her minutes.

“With a calf, you can’t fatigue it, so there’s a limit on how long she can go, but you know, I suppose we can get her up to 20 minutes,” Brondello said. “I think that would be great for us, but she just plays with so much energy. She’s a scoring threat from outside, she has no fear. She’s a competitor. You need those things in a big game. This doesn’t overwhelm her. She lives for these moments, so I think it’ll be great to have her back.”

Rushing back from a calf injury can cause bigger issues, like potentially injuring an Achilles tendon. So while Cunningham was itching to get back on the basketball court, she understood patience was required. But Sunday’s game surely tested it.

“Especially with Kia Nurse being out, you know, that’s both of our positions and for us to go out at the same time was hard, but people had to step up, which we did,” Cunningham said. “We got past Vegas which was awesome. But yeah, it sucked. It’s the Finals. This is where you want to be, this is what you dream of as a little girl, so for me to miss the first game, it sucked.”

What will Phoenix need to do in order to even this series up before heading to Chicago? To Griner, the answer is clear and obvious — and it’s one that they’ve struggled with at times all season long.

“Rebounding the ball. That’s gonna be a big one, offensive rebounding,” Griner said. “For us, giving us second chance points when we take a bad shot, or we take the early shot, whatever the case may be. Turnovers, you know, [we] can’t turn over the ball because that leads into their type of play. Then on the defensive end, getting it. They’re crashing hard, so if we can get the ball, we can get out and get some easy buckets. Those are a couple of things that I think can definitely change the game.”

Some of the experienced players around the team may have felt those first Finals game jitters, undoubtedly. But that experience is now something they can rely on. They’ve been down 1-0 in a series before — and they know they can still come out on top.

“We were just in this predicament last series,” Diggins-Smith said. “We have a lot of vets on our team and we understand this is a long series, so nobody’s getting too high or too low, nobody’s in panic mode, we understand the sense of urgency that we have to have and we have to come out [tomorrow] with a little more of that. “

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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