PHOENIX — A backwards battle of injuries and long runs fell the way of the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night, as the home team overcame a 12-point first-half deficit to beat the Las Vegas Aces in the debut of Liz Cambage.
With Cambage coming off the bench and Phoenix’s Sancho Lyttle also making her own return to the lineup, each team’s rotation was difficult to adjust for, creating high drama in a matchup the WNBA could see again come playoff time.
Bench minutes favor Aces in Cambage’s return
Of course any night that Liz Cambage happens to be a reserve will feature a big discrepancy between each team’s bench. But it was particularly painful for the Mercury to watch the Aces’ reserves dominate theirs, winning the bridge minutes between the end of the first and beginning of second quarters.
In the first quarter alone, Las Vegas’ bench outscored Phoenix’s, 10-0. Dearica Hamby put up 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting in the half, consistently slicing past the Mercury transition defense. Against Seattle, the Mercury’s main concern was creating easy opportunities by giving up the ball on turnovers. Hamby magicked transition buckets out of thin air on Friday.
Early in the second quarter, with Yvonne Turner operating as Phoenix’s backup point guard, coach Sandy Brondello was forced to put out lineups featuring two or more of her four rookies too often. It was a foul parade as Las Vegas went on a 15-3 run from the 3:57 mark of the first quarter to the 9:07 mark of the second. As soon as Brondello was able to go back to her vets after their rest, Phoenix went on a run of their own to come within one at the end of the half.
“We got a lot of turnovers and they had easy baskets in that phase,” Brondello said. “It’s more about us taking care of the ball, being on our front foot, making sure we have a good inside-outside balance.
“We took BG (Griner) out in that phase, but you still have to get the ball inside just to loosen up the defense. Maybe a little nerves from some of the rookies, too, but we made it a focus (in the second half) to run when we can … and if not, make sure we run a play.”
This will be a glaring question for Phoenix while Diana Taurasi is out — who can create good offense consistently? Against Seattle, the answer was basically no one. Late in the first half, the ball started moving and Briann January hit three triples as part of the Mercury’s big run.
Phoenix won’t be happy with the amount it turned the ball over for a second straight game, but Turner’s play to close things out has to be a sign for optimism going forward. She notched a career-high 10 assists and helped the Mercury get back control of the game.
Lyttle gets a heavy work load in first game back
What Brondello described as basically spot minutes to get Sancho Lyttle back into rhythm turned into Lyttle playing the most minutes of any Mercury bench player. Early on, DeWanna Bonner struggled with the size A’ja Wilson, making Lyttle’s presence much more important.
“You can’t teach seeing defense, seeing coverage,” Griner said postgame. “She just sees it before it happens. She’s awesome at it, and having her out there makes all of us better.”
Though Aces coach Bill Laimbeer rarely went to the Wilson-Cambage pairing, even just one of them on the court alongside Hamby or Carolyn Swords is a ton of size to deal with. The Mercury didn’t carry a traditional backup center into the regular season this year, meaning Lyttle and rookie Brianna Turner were on the court a ton Friday.
However, an early drive into the lane for Lyttle coupled with swarming, handsy defense likely showed Brondello that Lyttle could handle it. Having nearly a week between contests for the first three games of the year will make the transition smoother for Lyttle as well.
Lyttle finished with 12 minutes, the max the training staff allowed of her, according to Brondello. The forward was only 1-for-4 from the field but her quickness and smarts on defense were massive.
“I can give my all in every quarter,” Lyttle said of the minutes restriction. “I just went out there today, saying, ‘I’m just gonna do the hardest I can do in three minutes.'”
Hamby picks up where she left off
After signing a big extension during the offseason and looking electric in Las Vegas’ opener against the Sparks, the Aces’ third big dictated the game again Friday. To have a reserve whose energy and versatility forces opponents into immediate tough decisions is a huge competitive advantage for Laimbeer.
She filled the box score as usual, but more importantly, she won’t allow opposing defenses to play small when the Aces’ bigger players sit. Hamby held her own inside, grabbing two offensive rebounds and helping Las Vegas push the pace.
In a battle of bigs, Griner was best
The second half was a clinic in post play by Griner, who struggled inside against the Storm because of a lack of movement off-ball by Phoenix’s guards coupled with missed opportunities to re-post on the part of Griner herself.
Against Las Vegas, Griner scored 18 points, with 10 coming in the second half. She also made the Aces uncomfortable with better defense as Las Vegas struggled to get out in transition quite as much after a quick start.
Griner also did a great job avoiding foul trouble and staying on the court, allowing her to play extended minutes for the second consecutive game. When Laimbeer went small with Wilson at center in the middle of the fourth, Griner dominated, as evidenced by Wilson’s poor 4-of-19 shooting night.
“We congested them a fair bit, we had a lot of activity and we didn’t allow many open ones,” Brondello said. “It’s a hard guard, they have so many options coming at you.”
A late and-one with Cambage waiting to check in encapsulated the advantage Griner created — she was able to stay on the court when Las Vegas went small and when they played bigger. Cambage, on the other hand, was exposed with less than 1:30 to go on a simple pick-and-roll as the slithery Yvonne Turner soared in for a wide-open layup. Ditto for Wilson, who failed to get out on a kick-out to the corner and contest the Essence Carson three that gave Phoenix an 85-82 lead with under a minute to play they would not give up.
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