September 14, 2021 

The winning streak’s over, but the Phoenix Mercury look like a legit title threat

Phoenix gets standout efforts from their MVP, DPOY candidates in close loss to Connecticut without Taurasi

PHOENIX — Their 10-game winning streak is over. And yet, even after their first loss in two months, the confidence that propelled that streak remains around the Phoenix Mercury.

But they also got a thorough taste of playoff basketball. And in losing 76-67 to the Connecticut Sun in front of 9,811 fans on Saturday night, the reminder of how slim the margin of error is against the league’s best.

On Saturday night against the Sun, Phoenix once again turned the ball over at a clip higher than they’d like. But Connecticut took those 16 turnovers and turned them into 17 points. The Sun also grabbed nine offensive rebounds and scored 17 second-chance points off of them, two areas that have killed the Mercury throughout the season.

“It’s a wake-up call. It’s definitely a wake-up call,” Brittney Griner said. “We’ve been escaping by with the turnovers, it’s been an Achilles’ heel, [as well as] second-chance points. We played a much better team tonight and we hung in there, but we can’t give up stuff like that.”

In their 10-game winning streak, Phoenix played all but one game against teams with winning percentages well below .500: thrice against both Indiana and Atlanta, twice against New York and once against Washington. Their only game against a winning team was a 20-point win over Chicago on Aug. 31.

Sure, they won 7-of-10 games by double-digits and found areas that they improved on significantly from the first half of the season. But there were flawed games that Phoenix was able to pull out victories in, something that head coach Sandy Brondello knows the team couldn’t keep doing once the schedule got harder and the playoffs drew closer.

“It’s all the one percent-ers when you get into the playoffs — it’s about valuing every possession and making sure every possession counts,” Brondello said. “And on the defensive end too, finishing plays. They’re heartbreakers, [when] you play great defense and then they get an offensive rebound. I can see them kicking it out to DB and she’s shooting threes again. That was like a little dagger. They are things that we can control, like mindset and finishing the plays.”

But yet, playing without Diana Taurasi for the second-straight game after she rolled her ankle in Indiana on Sept. 6, the Phoenix Mercury found a lot to like from their performance against the WNBA’s best team. Most notably, Griner returned after missing a game to attend a funeral for her grandfather and played sensationally: 25 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks, two steals, a 3-pointer and a dunk.

“It was good just to be back to basketball and not having to worry about anything else, just focus,” Griner said. “I just kind of channeled all of those emotions and things from the week into this game. So yeah, I was definitely happy to be back. The crowd that we had tonight, X-factor showed up. I just hate that we didn’t get that W for them.”

Griner’s firmly in the thick of the MVP race for the season: she’s one of three players averaging more than 20 points per game (20.8, second only to Tina Charles), she’s fourth in the league with 9.5 rebounds per game and she also leads the league in blocks per game, at 2.0.

“BG is balling, she’s been balling all season,” Shey Peddy said in a lengthy monologue after shootaround on Sept. 11. “Her numbers before and after the Olympic break are at the top, so I don’t understand how she’s not top two candidate for this award.”

But Griner has also added a career-high four dunks just in this season alone — more than the rest of the players in the WNBA have had in the entire 25-year existence of the league combined. She’s also showed off her extended range with her shooting, making four 3-pointers this season. Doing that at age-30 led the self-pronounced springy Griner to crack that she’s “aging like wine, baby,” but she’s quick to pass praise along.

“Honestly, I have to give all of that to my teammates,” Griner said. “I always play around in practice, shooting those shots. And they’re always telling me dunk more. If it wasn’t for them believing in me the way that they do, my coaches … I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I was feeling it and they were on me hard, especially Shey over there. I have to give the dunk and the three and this season, and how it’s transpiring, credit to my teammates.”

But it was the teammate who got the assist on Griner’s dunk on the night, Brianna Turner, who arguably had the biggest impact on the night’s game — and on Phoenix’s recent defensive surge. “Breezy” was a tornado defensively, both as the primary defender holding Connecticut’s MVP candidate Jonquel Jones to a 12-point, 5-for-18 shooting night and as the elite help defender, she is on a nightly basis.

“Breezy’s amazing, isn’t she? She really is. And it’s great to see her grow in confidence. She invites and loves the challenge of guarding their best play,” Brondello said. “To make JJ go 5-for-18, score 12 points, it was a pretty good effort there. It was what we want. I thought she did a good job. She anticipates well, she understands schemes. She played how we wanted her to play, playing in her spaces as much as we could.”

Her teammates have been advocating for her to get the Defensive Player of the Year award all season long, and Peddy and Griner both added their voices to that chorus on Sept. 10.

“Defensive player of the year is Breezy. Hands down. Nobody is doing what she’s doing out there,” Peddy said. “No shade or nothing to any of the other candidates, but come on. What post player is defending their man, but able to get out and stop a guard? What guard is stopping their man, but can go down low, bang with the posts and get a stop? Nobody. Literally, like what are we talking about right now? Defensive player of the year is Brianna ‘Breezy’ Turner. That’s it. End of discussion.”

Griner added, “I kinda have to stop watching — Sometimes, I get caught watching. JJ’s my teammate overseas and I play against her every day in practice. It’s hard. She’s very athletic in what she’s capable of doing. Breezy being able to guard her and just make it, even when she made shots, they were tough shots she had to make over Breezy, and that’s hard. I go against Breezy every day here too, and she blocked my shot overseas in EuroLeague like three times when we played them in the playoffs. I know what Breezy can do, and that is very challenging. The sky’s the limit for Breezy. If she taps into it, believes in herself even more … she’s next.”

It could be a tight race for Defensive Player of the Year and even for the forward spots on the All-Defense First Team, as Connecticut’s Jones, Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles and even Griner will be considered for both. But it seems pretty clear that Turner is one of the most, if not the most, versatile defenders in the league.

But Phoenix also has a guard who has been playing rock-solid defense as part of an incredible all-around year. Skylar Diggins-Smith was among the league leaders on the defensive end in many Synergy Sports categories at the Olympic break and she’s continued to add stellar defensive efforts since. In her monologue, Peddy said she felt Diggins-Smith should be considered for both MVP and on an All-Defense team.

‘She’s been balling, a certified bucket, hard to stop, and she’s doing her thing on the defensive end,” Peddy said. “She’s sticking the best guard on the other team day in, day out, trying to get make us as tough as possible. I think she deserves to be on a defensive team.”

When asked what making an All-Defense team would mean to her, Diggins-Smith said, “It would mean a lot because I never feel like I’m recognized for that aspect of my game. I just think that I don’t know what people look at, but that’s something I’ve been really focused on this year especially, and coming to this franchise, to be honest.

“I knew I was coming to play with superstars and we were going to have a lot of power on offense, and I was trying to see what else I can bring to the table. They kinda fed me a passion for defense. I’ve always been competitive, but I’m just trying to bring more to the table on that end of the floor.”

But even with those three having sensational seasons, there’s been one player whose presence continues to be missed by the Mercury: the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. Taurasi’s had two freak injuries pop up throughout the year, suffering a crack in her sternum in the second game of the season that, after playing with it for two games, kept her out for a month.

Then last week in Indiana, she rolled her ankle landing from a 3-point jumpshot late in the fourth quarter and, while finishing out the game, she’s missed two straight games. While Brondello said Taurasi is “making big improvements every day,” she was unsure if Taurasi would be ready to play against the Storm on Friday.

‘It’d be nice to get her back for Seattle, but I want her to make sure she’s feeling good to get back out there” Brondello said. “And you’ve got to look at the bigger picture. We still need to obviously win, but it’s her, so she knows her body better than anyone and she works really hard with the medical staff. We’ll see.”

Friday night’s game in Seattle will guarantee the winner a first-round bye — no matter what the Phoenix Mercury do in their final game Sunday at home against Las Vegas. Seattle will be without their superstar Breanna Stewart on Friday as she rehabilitates a foot injury, likely leaving Phoenix as the favorite to win Friday.

Think about the big picture, though: the standings make it exceedingly likely that these two teams will end up as the fourth and fifth seed, so there’s a good chance these teams would see each other again in the second round of the playoffs. Seattle potentially having Stewart back by then would make it all the more important to Phoenix to have Taurasi back and healthy, too.

“She’s the GOAT. Having her out there, she sees the game so well, she knows the game. That’s extra points, extra leadership, an extra voice, an extra body,” Peddy said. “I think once we all get healthy and come together, we’ll really be dangerous. We’re all clicking and playing really well together, whether it’s the bench players playing, the starters, or interchangeable. We’re all coming together. We just need that one final piece and I think we have a good shot.”

Brondello added, “It’s Diana Taurasi, too. This is the GOAT. And Dee doesn’t need to be scoring, just her being out there will open it up for everyone else. We obviously miss her calmness under pressure, her passing ability.”

And that’s what made Saturday’s game equally frustrating and encouraging: they gave the league’s best an intensely-competitive game even without Taurasi.

“We didn’t execute some of our plays because, without Dee there, we moved positions around a little bit too,” Brondello said. “There are things we can get better at with time. Hopefully, Diana will be back for the playoffs and that changes us, but I was still happy with our overall effort. We got close. We had opportunities to win, but we hurt ourselves.”

Even with a 10-game winning streak broken, it’s fair to say that the game against Connecticut — even as a loss — was a bigger statement about just how strong the Phoenix Mercury’s title chances are. And that’s a feeling Griner says has never left the team.

“I feel like we knew it. We already knew,” Griner said. “Not to be cocky, but I feel like we knew we could compete with the best of the best. We believe in ourselves enough. Even tonight, with everything that we did wrong — that we did wrong — that’s the controllables. We change that, it’s a different outcome.

“If this is the series, who knows what the outcome would’ve been. I guarantee you that if we played another day, we would’ve corrected those mistakes and I’d like to see what the outcome is after that. We’ve been feeling it, 10 in a row. That broke and that hurts, but we know that we belong here and we know we’re going to go deep and make that run to the 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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