September 7, 2021
With chemistry clicking, Mercury keep on winning
With great team chemistry helping spark a nine-game winning streak, the Mercury are readying for a playoff push
Longtime sportswriter and author Joan Ryan’s new book, “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry“, dives into the science behind team chemistry. (Full disclosure: Joan is a lifelong friend.)
She looks at how our bodies release oxytocin hormones as we build trust with teammates through hugs, high fives, handshakes and other physical connections with someone. On the soul side, she delves into the unquantifiable aspects of team chemistry that just have to be there, like belief in someone making a positive impact on a team’s performance just by their presence alone.
It’s pretty clear that the team chemistry of the Phoenix Mercury has grown rapidly on the back-side of the Olympic break. The results that have followed — a nine-game winning streak, the second-longest in franchise history —have vaulted Phoenix back into championship contention.
How the Olympic break allowed Phoenix to gel
In the eyes of Brittney Griner, MVP candidate and two-time Western Conference Player of the Week in the three weeks post-Olympic break; it’s the break that may have sparked the nine-game winning streak they’re currently on.
“It feels weird to say, but I feel like the break brought our team chemistry together more once we came back,” Griner said. “You see it on the court, we’re just there. On defense we’re there for each other, we’re helping each other, celebrating. All of the things that get you hooked in the game, we’re doing all of those little things. I think that’s what the difference is.”
While five players and head coach Sandy Brondello went to Tokyo for the Olympics, the others had two full weeks off from basketball before returning to practice together, and Griner referred to that time apart from the team as a “rejuicer” for the rest of the season.
“You kind of hit that flat line, and you get the break, you get to forget everything,” Griner said. “You get to miss going to the gym, you get to miss being around each other, you miss the feeling of winning. Once we got back together, I feel like it was a good little break to bump us back up. It rejuvenated us.”
That rejuvenated energy is pretty noticeable at the moment. The players are frequently crashing on each other’s media availabilities, and the team is heading out together often, something Taurasi begrudgingly noted because she picked up the bill. While there was a pool party before the break that seemed particularly helpful at the time, there’s been an even more important element that’s been able to hold steady so far: everyone’s playing.
“Obviously, being healthy is a priority,” Taurasi said. “You can talk to any team and, if you’re not healthy, things seem to be very difficult. When you come out with your whole roster healthy and available, that makes a huge difference, and that’s helped us.”
Taurasi was the player impacted the most by unanticipated health issues, missing a month with a fracture in her sternum and the final three games before the Olympics with a nagging left hip injury. They also had multiple players missing more than half of training camp to complete their overseas seasons, including Kia Vaughn missing the first four games of the WNBA season as she finished up in Turkey.
At the exact halfway mark of the season, the Mercury were 7-9, fresh off of an embarrassing 31-point loss that had the team questioning everything about themselves. But a 2-1 week without Taurasi left the team with confidence about their championship aspirations, and the players who did not go to Tokyo seem to have set the tone once they returned from the break.
“The group that came back before we got back from Tokyo, they put in a lot of hard work with the coaches that were here,” Griner said. “They did a great job of getting everybody ready and understanding what we wanted to do. Once we got back, we just merged right in to it.”
How the Mercury are pulling off their wins
The schedule has unquestionably been an easier slate for the Mercury, who have picked off three wins against Indiana, two against Atlanta (with one more coming on Wednesday), two against New York without Sami Whitcomb and one against Washington without Elena Delle Donne. But the way they’re winning games has been decisively different, too.
Before the Olympic break, every game with a tightly-contested battle, with 14-of-19 games finishing with a single-digit margin. Since then, the Mercury have won 7-of-9 games in their winning streak by double-digits. They’ve scored the most points per game (88.8) while allowing the second-fewest (74.1).
They’ve even won games missing their two superstars who carried them in the first half, too. Their only single-digit win in the run before Sept. 6 was when Diggins-Smith rolled her ankle 80 seconds into the game against Indiana on Aug. 17, a game the Mercury turned on the jets in the second half to pull out an 84-80 win. They also lost Griner to an ankle roll on Aug. 27 in New York, her first game missed due to injury since 2017. But still pulled out an 80-64 win, one that resonated heavily with the MVP candidate.
“Just sitting there watching my team fight and battle and mesh, because I know there were probably so many people who counted us out, which is crazy because we have such a great team,” Griner said. “When one of us go down, we’re still a great team. They went and got that win and showed them. I was very happy, very proud of my team, my teammates, everybody. We have a really fucking great team.”
On the offensive end, it was understandable when Taurasi was out that Diggins-Smith and Griner would end up taking a large portion of shots for the team. But when Taurasi came back for three games in late June, it was not a seamless transition, with the team finding some struggles in how to blend the entire group together.
Since the Olympic break ended, though, any issues on that end have seemingly disappeared, and the Mercury’s offense is rolling. And to Diggins-Smith, the rhythm on the offensive end is actually coming from focusing most — if not all — of the team’s energy on the other end of the floor.
“It’s a vibe. It’s a vibe,” Diggins-Smith said on Aug. 31. “We know what we can do on that side of the basketball, so I think our focus has really been on the other side, defensively, and trying to establish ourselves as a defensive team. [We’re] just trying to paint our masterpiece on that end, so that’s really been our focus.”
The contributions from players outside of their three gold medalists of Diggins-Smith, Griner and Taurasi have been vital, too. Brianna Turner’s offensive game has continued to improve, averaging nearly 10 points per game in the winning streak, and Kia Nurse has added nights of 21 points against Chicago on Aug. 31 and 19 points against Indiana on Sept. 6.
“We know what we all can bring to the table. We’re all threats, we all can score 20 points. You know what you’re going to get, so it’s just a vibe,” Diggins-Smith said. “Riding who’s hot at the moment, who’s got the hot hand, who’s guarding whom, matchups on the opposite end that we feel like we can take advantage of. It’s really just a vibe.
“You can’t say, ‘Okay, you had the last one, now it’s your turn.’ It’s just like, ‘You’re hot, go right back to her. They double, kick it out. You don’t have anything on this side, swing it and play to the next side.’ I think we’re just really getting locked in on getting good reads and taking what the defense gives you.”
Nurse added, “We’re doing a really good job on the offensive end of sharing the ball. If you watch us play, we’re having fun and we’re getting excited for one another. We’re getting people in situations where people can be successful.”
And they’ve reached a fully healthy status, too, as Bria Hartley returned from the torn ACL she suffered in the bubble last year and picked up game action in both games at Indiana on Sept. 4 and 6. While no one is expecting Hartley to be a significant contributor as she works her way back into the team’s rotation, just getting her back has been a lift — for the team and her.
“I’m really just excited to just get back out there,” Hartley said on Sept. 4. “I was sitting there like, ‘We need to get up 20 so I could get in the game.’ It just felt good to be out there with my teammates. It’s been a long, long journey, and I really just feel like it paid off today to be out there in my team.”
Preparing for a brutal pre-playoff stretch
That doesn’t mean there’s a guarantee they will get to the playoffs healthy. Forward Alanna Smith was out for Sept. 6’s game at Indiana due to coronavirus health and safety protocols. And Phoenix got another ankle scare when Taurasi landed on Tiffany Mitchell’s ankle and appeared seriously hurt in the final minute of the Sept. 6 game. Taurasi never left the game but was clearly bothered by the ankle, giving Phoenix another thing to watch going forward.
But after playing in Atlanta on Sept. 8, the Mercury finish off the regular season against the league’s best: home against Connecticut on Sept. 11, on the road at Seattle on Sept. 17 and home against Las Vegas on Sept. 19. They’re currently a half-game behind Seattle and Minnesota for third and fourth. And two games back of Las Vegas for second place. They can play their way into a first-round bye if they keep rolling, and a little help from other playoff contenders could give them a shot at the double-bye.
After rolling through their competition with double-digit wins for almost a full month, a tightly-contested, feisty game like Sept. 6’s at Indiana is something that serves as a valuable experience for Phoenix.
“It was good for us to have a close game, to be quite honest,” Brondello said. “Every game is going to be hard, it’s more how you execute down the stretch.”
But in those close games, it continues to help to have an all-time great closer in Taurasi around to hit big shots and draw fouls — and yes, even get one of the double-technical fouls awarded for jawing with Indiana’s Teaira McCowan — when close games get down to the wire.
“She’s the greatest of all-time for a reason,” Nurse said. “Her being able to take over a game when she needs to and come in and knock down big shots. When that moment is the most pressure-filled and the toughest, not a lot of people can walk in her shoes and do what she does every time.”
It’s tough to truly say what comes first between winning and team chemistry, in the same vein of asking if the chicken or the egg came first. But once a team has both going, it sure makes it a joyful time for everyone, and that’s something the Mercury are experiencing everywhere they go.
“It’s fun,” Griner said. “The locker room, the bus rides, just in the hotel. We’re just having a lot of fun. And we’re all together having that fun, enjoying it.”