What does the team need to do to reach their goals?
PHOENIX — It hurts any team to lose their biggest star. Despite having players like DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner ready to go, the Phoenix Mercury is no exception. There’s no doubt that the loss of Diana Taurasi for at least one-third of the season caused them to regroup. For those inside the locker room, that doesn’t mean diminished expectations, though.
“There’s no reason we should not be a successful team until I get back,” Taurasi said at Monday’s media day.
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Head coach Sandy Brondello believes that’s not only possible, but it’s required. The Mercury plans to be in the postseason, and they don’t want to have their backs against the wall when they get there. Despite their success in the do-or-die opening rounds of the playoffs, Brondello would prefer that they don’t have to do that again this season.
“Our goal is to finish one or two,” Brondello said. “We can’t just wait for Diana to get back.”
It’s easy to say, but how to accomplish that? Depth, defense, and offensive creativity are the keys, according to the coach.
Brondello doesn’t think it’s the scoring they will miss the most while Taurasi recovers. Instead, it will be her ability to make others better through her passing and court vision that the team will have to compensate for.
“I think we’re a good offensive team,” Brondello said, “but our guards are going to have to step up.”
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s about becoming more consistent in both guarding and rebounding. Brondello thinks they’re a good defensive team, but that’s not enough.
“For us to win, we have to be a great defensive team,” she said.
That will require the entire team playing as one, Griner said, but there’s also some personal responsibility. The center believes a major contribution she needs to make this year is improving as a rebounder, especially on the offensive boards.
“It’s always been a little bit of my Achilles heel, rebounding,” she said. “Just doing the work early, not relying on the straight height. It’s hard to jump up and get a board when they’re boxing you out, so you have to do the work early. I know it needs changing. I’m definitely changing this year.”
For rookies like Sophie Cunningham, finding a place on the team may turn on how much she can contribute to the group’s drive for defensive greatness.
“I’m just feisty,” Cunningham said when asked about how she could contribute on that end of the floor. “I’m clearly not the most athletic, can’t jump the highest, not the quickest, but I’m feisty and I’m passionate about the game. And I think I outwork my opponent, as well. I think that shows a lot when I’m out on the court because I get my team riled up. Even if I’m not the best defender, I’m going to find a way to get it done.”
The motivation and goals remain the same: win another championship. Game five of last year’s semifinals is where the motivation begins, according to Brondello. For Taurasi, healing and getting back on the court to help her team compete for that title is as important now as ever.
“I still get excited to come to the gym,” she said. “I still have things that irk me as a basketball player, that I can get better. There are still things that I want to do. I turn 37 in a couple weeks, and I just feel like this is the beginning. When you get to this age, it’s like ‘oh, is this your last?’ No, it’s not my last year. This is just another little bump in the road to get back to where I want to go, and that’s to be back on the court with Phoenix for the next couple years, go to another Olympics. I mean, there’s still unfinished business in my mind.”
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