The Phoenix Mercury limit mistakes and hold a trump card in Diana Taurasi nearly every time they play. Doubt them at your own risk.
PHOENIX — They’re older, they’re injured, they’re inconsistent and they’re not very deep. But it’s tough to ever really count the Phoenix Mercury out in the playoffs.
They certainly possess the kind of explosiveness that, in the context of one game, tilts the advantage in their favor. The variability of a 40-minute contest typically goes the way of the team that controls the game. By forcing turnovers, shooting a high volume of 3s, and playing small, Phoenix tries to own tempo.
After a 104-95 victory over the Atlanta Dream on Friday night at home, it looks as if the Mercury’s star-centric system is peaking at the right time.
Maximizing the strengths of their roster, Phoenix carefully places efficient, low-usage role players around its stars, and that setup allows Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner to handle a heavy burden. The Mercury boast a league-leading 3-point rate, meaning the percentage of their total shots that are 3s is the highest in the WNBA. Over a third of their shots come from deep, according to Positive Residual’s shooting data. Phoenix also shoots less from midrange than any other squad, a product of Taurasi and Bonner’s proficiency behind the arc and Griner’s looming presence inside.
“We knew we had all the right pieces, it was just figuring out how to move it around to make it fit,” Griner said postgame Friday of the latest lineup shuffle, pushing Bonner to power forward in place of the injured Sancho Lyttle.
If Griner is on and engaged, as she was Friday, she too can take over games even against the best competition. The incredible Atlanta frontline of Elizabeth Williams and Jessica Breland was no match, as Griner scored 33 points to go with 18 rebounds and seven blocks.
She is a monster — if her team can get her the ball. Phoenix tallied 14 turnovers Friday, despite the victory.
Taurasi spoke preseason about taking over playmaking duties after the front office brought in Arizona State alum Briann January to replace Danielle Robinson in the backcourt, and that change has been huge for Phoenix. January and backup Leilani Mitchell are used almost exclusively off the ball or handling after initial action by Taurasi. January leads the league in 3-point efficiency at nearly 45 percent.
It’s not just January and Mitchell who have altered their style to fit the roster. Taurasi is fifth in the WNBA in assist percentage, or the number of team made field goals she assists while on the court, and sixth in usage rate. At age 36, she is still the star around which the Mercury orbit.
She nailed a pull-up 3 from her throne on the left wing to open the scoring Friday night, and demanded attention all night within 35 feet.
“Sometimes that’s a bad shot,” Taurasi admitted Friday. “When momentum’s not going your way or you’ve had three or four bad possessions… it’s not usually a good shot.
“But, if you use it in the right way, it’s something that I’ve really practiced and worked at a lot this year, because it is an effective shot when the defense is on their heels and you pull up from there.”
Playing off Taurasi and dictating pace does not mean playing fast for the Mercury. They average over a full possession per game less than the league average, according to Matt Femrite’s league-comparison data.
Instead, Phoenix plays within itself. They are rarely blown out.
This transfixing style, whereby Phoenix slows things down, gives its stars the chance to win games and makes sure its role players don’t lose them, works. The Mercury suffered an equally frustrating season in 2017 before cruising to the semifinal round of the postseason. Taurasi may be the greatest to ever play — it’s difficult to argue strategically with simply limiting mistakes and letting her go to work.
If she gets support, there’s little chance Phoenix will lose.
“We’ve been able to exploit some of the things people try to do against BG (Griner) and I,” Taurasi said. “More off the double off pick-and-rolls and in the post, and it’s opening some nice opportunities for Bri (Briann January) and DB (Bonner).”
Friday against the Dream, Bonner posted a balanced line of 21 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists and hit a deep 3 with about three minutes left to put the game out of reach, while January missed just one shot and scored 16 points of her own.
“Moving DB to the four spot creates more opportunities to get more 3s,” coach Sandy Brondello explained after Friday’s victory over the Dream. “Obviously they have to make a decision whether they trap BG or not, whether they trap Dee (Taurasi) or not, so out of that movement usually someone will be open.
“There’s been some games where we struggled a little bit, but we’re peaking at the right time, and that’s what you want.”
Atlanta has proven itself to be incredibly competitive and terrifyingly deep, and they’ve handled losing All-Star Angel McCoughtry about as well as possible. They came to Phoenix Friday ramping into shape heading into the playoffs, and the Mercury played up to their level and then some.
As Phoenix prepares for at least one (but likely two) single-elimination playoff games this month, they face better odds than one would imagine. If the Mercury are healthy and locked in, it’s difficult to construct many scenarios in which they lose to any but the absolute best squads.
“In situations when it is a knockout, it doesn’t matter where you finish in the standings, it’s how you play in the game,” Brondello said. “Anyone can beat anyone.
“We have that playoff experience, we’ve been there, done that, and hopefully that will hold true this year as well.”
With a path back to the semifinals that could realistically go through both of the last two WNBA champions, it will be a fight through August. The Mercury are confident in what they’ve got.