One year removed from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Sparks, the Phoenix Mercury has built itself into a team better equipped to handle Los Angeles. But what has really changed?
It’s far from glamorous to admit you’re chasing one team, building yourself up in the shadow of an immovable Goliath.
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So athletes, coaches and people around sports rarely do it.
But in a crowded league with talent around every corner, WNBA teams, for the most part, have to build their teams that way. Watching the Phoenix Mercury construct a new nucleus around Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi this summer, it was clear overcoming their 2017 WNBA playoff sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Sparks was at forefront of the plans.
Looking through a narrow lens, one could swing across the reconstructed Phoenix roster and see how each small change was made to account for a Sparks strength.
Sancho Lyttle, nabbed from Atlanta to match Los Angeles’ stretchy, athletic frontcourt stars. Briann January, to challenge the Sparks’ scoring guards on both ends with unceasing energy. And of course DeWanna Bonner, not so much an addition as a triumphant return, in many ways making the Mercury whole once again.
Most coaches will tell you talent wins in basketball. Bonner has lots of it.
Her flexibility has allowed the Mercury to stay competitive since Lyttle tore her ACL in July, a point in the season at which many wrote Phoenix off. She is quick and long enough to play as a guard or forward, which has allowed Mercury coach Sandy Brondello to reinvent her starting lineup with Bonner at the four and second-year Stephanie Talbot at the three.
They are interchangeable on defense, and their energy pays off. The Mercury are fifth in the league in opponent turnover percentage, a sign of active hands and defensive IQ.
What makes the Sparks so devastating to handle is how well they space the floor. That’s certainly going to be a strength for any team featuring Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, but the Sparks have also found incredible rhythm on their second unit playing through the shooting of Riquna Williams and Essence Carson.
During last year’s semifinals, that spacing undid the Mercury defense.
Griner was forced to extend herself out beyond the free-throw line, while Taurasi’s heavy minutes load exposed her defensive deficiencies. Both were asked to do too much.
Now, January and Bonner have helped set a different tone defensively, one which stymied Los Angeles when the two teams met Sunday. It comes back to the versatility that each of them brings, able to guard multiple positions and match the multiheaded Sparks attack.
No one is stopping Parker one-on-one (she scored 12 points in the first quarter Sunday), but Bonner’s foot speed and enveloping length stand a better chance than most. She can plant herself on Parker Island and at least make the two-time MVP work.
The same can be said of Los Angeles’ helplessness against Griner. It was a sad sight Sunday, watching Maria Vadeeva try and fail to stop the Baylor great in the post. Griner’s decisiveness and touch around the basket make it an impossible task for most WNBA defenders. Jantel Lavender did not fare much better Aug. 5, giving up two fouls in 10 minutes and posting a minus-5 for the night.
And of course there is Taurasi, an MVP candidate and one of the most efficient scorers in the league this year. The 14-year veteran has such an astonishing ability to dictate game outcomes she can go underdiscussed, a preeminent invisible (shooting) hand.
Even with the last embers of the semifinals burning out last September, Taurasi put up a dazzling performance in Game 3 with 22 points and five assists. She can, to say the least, swing a game. And the Sparks provide an opportunity to hide Taurasi’s defense by starting Alana Beard, who is no threat to score.
So what has really changed?
Phoenix still has no real answer for the Sparks’ frontcourt, and they negate Griner’s effectiveness. Los Angeles’ is the deeper roster, and they have Parker, probably the best player in any potential series between the teams—not to mention Chelsea Gray, who has really come on since last year’s playoff battle and overpowered Talbot for the most part in two games this month. The Mercury bench is nowhere to be found.
Unless Bonner puts on the two-way performance of her life and Taurasi smacks Mother Time senseless, it’s tough to see the Mercury advancing past the Sparks, should the two teams meet again. Their rotation has been in disarray since the Lyttle injury, and finding balance in time for the playoffs will be difficult. Phoenix lives and dies by its big three, but their overall depth is no match for that of the Sparks.
Gray has become too overpowering, and Parker can still pull it out when the moment calls. The Mercury have no answer for those two.
The league standings are in flux heading toward the end of the season, but Phoenix and Los Angeles could easily find themselves in another playoff battle at any point this postseason.
It’s more even this year, but the Sparks have so much firepower that even their No. 4 or 5 spot in the standings doesn’t do the 2016 champions justice. They are too much to handle.