June 14, 2023 

Brittney Griner exits early as things go from bad to worse for Phoenix Mercury

Turnovers, rebounding issues persist — and now injuries are a concern, too

PHOENIX — Things had been bad for the Phoenix Mercury so far in 2023.

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They may have gotten worse on Tuesday.

Not only did the Mercury get blown out on their home floor by the sputtering Seattle Storm, but Brittney Griner left the game in the first half with a hip injury and didn’t return — and after the game, coach Vanessa Nygaard didn’t have an update on the severity of the injury, saying the team was waiting for an evaluation.

The 83-69 loss to the Storm — who came into the game with a 1-6 record and are in a rebuild following the retirement of Sue Bird and the departure of Breanna Stewart — on Tuesday also featured Diana Taurasi being held scoreless for just the fifth time in her 19-year WNBA career.

The turnover and rebounding problems that have been plaguing Phoenix all season were on full display Tuesday at the Footprint Center. Phoenix entered the day with the turnovers per game (16.5) in the WNBA and the fewest rebounds per game (30.4), and on Tuesday they turned the ball over 16 times were outrebounded again, 38-32.

But rebounding and turnovers are not the only issues for Phoenix. The team appears discombobulated on defense, and on Tuesday they were late closing out on 3-point shooter Sami Whitcomb, who torched Phoenix by making 6-of-10 shots drop deep.

On offense, after seemingly sorting things out from the early season struggles, Phoenix fell back into the same earlier rut, tying their season-low with 69 points. At times, the Mercury looked confused on offense, though forward Sophie Cunningham believes the Mercury know how to fix things.

“I think it’s just knowing how the defense is playing us, not forcing things,” Cunningham said. “Just hitting the wide open person. But I really think right now transition is our best offense. … And that’s what we kind of got to stay in. But yeah, we know the offense but it’s executing [it]. It’s not being dumb and turning the ball over. It’s not taking contested shots when someone’s wide open. So we’ve all from top to bottom have got to be better.”

The questions about the offense will only become bigger if Griner needs to miss time. Offense hasn’t been the problem for Griner in her return from nearly a year in wrongful Russian detainment, as she’s averaging 20.1 points per game even after only scoring two points in nine minutes on Tuesday.

The 6-foot-8 center has also been solid defensively, with 2.5 blocks per game, though her rebounding numbers are down to 6.5 per game (her lowest average since 2016).

Still, if she misses time, it’s hard to picture how Phoenix’s other options for center in Brianna Turner or Megan Gustafson — who are combining for four points per game right now — could match Griner’s production. And while Turner led the way with 10 rebounds on Tuesday, she’s shown a hesitancy to take shots so far this season.

Thus, Phoenix would need its backcourt players to step up, which makes Taurasi’s scoreless night all the more worrisome. Considered by many to be the greatest player in league history, Taurasi’s has shown flashes of playing at that level this season, but has also looked like a player who just turned 41 on Sunday — including on Tuesday, when she shot 0-for-6 from the field, 0-for-4 from 3-point range and was -21 in 23 minutes of action.

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There are some brights spot, particularly with Sug Sutton and Cunningham. Sutton’s 11.8 points and 5.3 assists per game has been a pleasant surprise this season, and Cunningham broke out from a slow start to the season with a season-high 21 points on Tuesday.

But Phoenix was handed a convincing loss by one of the worst teams in the WNBA on Tuesday night, and the schedule is unrelenting going forward — at Washington on Friday, at New York on Sunday, back home to face the defending champions Las Vegas on Wednesday.

It doesn’t leave much time to try and fix what’s been ailing the Mercury.

“We have a lot of games so we don’t have traditional practice — we’re not out there running shell drill to get better at our defense,” Nygaard said. “So I think that focus comes down to individual improvement, working with our players one-one-one to make sure they know exactly what to do and that they’re seeing what they’re doing so we can make those corrections. So, we do have a couple days here but the recovery and rest is a priority as well.

“We just got to get better.”

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Written by Jesse Morrison

Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.

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