WNBA scores: Indiana Fever earn road win over Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 17: Erica Wheeler
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 17: Erica Wheeler /

PHOENIX — Though they built a lead for themselves in the standings that protects them in times like these, the Phoenix Mercury cannot afford to lose games to lesser teams. That’s what makes Wednesday’s 84-77 loss to the Indiana Fever sting.

Phoenix is now 1-1 since Brittney Griner’s injury, and can thank the All-Star break for consuming one of her four weeks of recovery time. She will be back before they know it, and perhaps the added responsibility from games without her will push the Mercury to a new level.

Three takeaways from from a tough loss:

Taurasi’s wild shooting season

PHOENIX, AZ – JULY 14: Diana Taurasi
PHOENIX, AZ – JULY 14: Diana Taurasi /

These days, most of the shots Diana Taurasi takes are threes. Earlier this season, she broke Katie Smith’s WNBA three-point record, and it’s been her go-to weapon in 2017. Taurasi is part of a select group of players with the confidence to rise up and make triples from anywhere on the court. It’s the wrinkle she’s relied on most to stay effective in her 13th season.

For perspective, 64 percent of the shots that Taurasi takes are threes. That number has risen steadily throughout her career, but has jumped wildly since last season. Fortunately for her, the veteran guard has made good on her three-heavy approach: she is shooting 8.6 per game and cashing in on 40 percent of her attempts. It’s difficult to find a much better shooter on the planet.

Incredibly, her overall shooting percentage still sits at a mere 38 percent, by far the lowest of her career. She’s made only 36 percent of her 2-pointers this season, struggling to make shots in the intermediate area. Taurasi had a career game on Wednesday, despite foul trouble and inconsistency from the rest of the offense. She shot 6-8 from three and scored 34 points.

This might be the diet upon which Taurasi feasts as she finishes her WNBA career over the next four seasons. However, for the next month, she’ll need to diversify and become more efficient while the Mercury weather the storm of Griner’s absence. The MVP candidate center injured both legs on Sunday night, and her departure will take away 20-plus interior points per game. Taurasi will be the key to keeping the Mercury hot.

Angel Robinson gives Mercury another dimension

The biggest problems facing Phoenix through the first month of the season were rebounding and depth. In acquiring Robinson, the team went a long way toward solving both. The Georgia product is technically in her second WNBA season, but played overseas for two years between opportunities. She gives the Mercury the backup frontcourt player they’ve needed desperately, and provides a stasis between starting and bench units.

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This means that when coach Sandy Brondello goes to her bench, she is not adapting the game plan so thoroughly as she did early on with Cayla George as Griner’s backup or even recently when she was giving Emma Cannon consistent post touches.

Now, Robinson’s performance (and, subtly, Camille Little’s improvement) has given Brondello better options. She has averaged nearly 10 rebounds per 36 minutes since arriving in Phoenix, and is a quick, versatile defender. Whereas Griner drops back when covering opposing pick-and-rolls, using her length to disrupt the opponent, Robinson can step out and switch onto ball-handlers. She too has the length to alter shots, but also leverages elite foot speed into great defensive positioning.

On Wednesday, Robinson showed up with seven rebounds and that typically excellent defense. This was game two without Griner, and despite the loss, the signs of survival are optimistic.

Erica Wheeler’s playmaking moves Fever offense along

Apart from Candice Dupree, it’s been difficult for Indiana to find consistent offense this season. That problem intensified last week, when starting guard Shenise Johnson tore her ACL and was declared out for the remainder of the 2017 season.

Next: Brunson will replace Griner as West All-Star Reserve

On Wednesday afternoon, it was Erica Wheeler, the third-year playmaker, who made the Fever offense go. She finished the game with 20 and seven assists, but provided even more value as the on-court captain for Indiana. The best recipe for a struggling team is guidance and scoring from ball-handlers on offense, and Wheeler is taking the driver’s seat for the Fever.