Takeaways from the Los Angeles win
PHOENIX—Pride Night in Phoenix was a memorable event for at least one couple, who got engaged during the game. It wasn’t such a great night for the Mercury (2-4), who were easily handled by the visiting L.A. Sparks (4-2) in an 85-68 defeat. The Sparks pushed their lead out to as many as 20 points before dribbling the ball out to maintain the final margin of victory.
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“At this point in the season, they’re the better team.”
Those were the words of DeWanna Bonner after the game. She was right, too. The Sparks dominated the competition, leading in nearly every statistical category. Better shooting, more steals, more assists, more blocks, fewer turnovers, a 17-2 lead in fast break points, more points in the paint. Only second-chance points and rebounds went the Mercury’s way.
For Bonner, the only thing the team can do is learn from the experience and keep moving forward until the entire group is back. What did they learn?
“Ah, man. You name it, we learned it,” she said with a laugh. “I think it’s just about our energy and our fight. Third quarter, we can’t come out that flat, especially against a team like that.”
You certainly can’t use it as an excuse. After all, the Sparks were without Alana Beard, Candace Parker, and Maria Vadeeva. However, Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello pointed out that they played with just five post players and five guards. In addition to Diana Taurasi, who is still rehabbing after back surgery, rookie guard Sophie Cunningham also sat out with a back injury.
Brondello said that Cunningham injured her back a few days ago in practice. Although she wasn’t on the injury report issued by the team, she was wearing what appeared to be an electrical muscular stimulation device around her torso during shootaround Friday morning and didn’t take part. Cunningham noted that she had back problems her sophomore year in college and that the travel and lack of rest might be causing it to flare up again.
“Going on the road and sleeping in other beds for eight days is a lot for my back,” she said. “But it’s part of the business, so I kinda got to get used to it. I’ll be good.”
How do the rookies adjust?
While Cunningham sat out, Alanna Smith saw limited action for the Mercury. She struggled in her 7:45 of playing time. On the first possession after checking in, she lost her defensive assignment. It turned into points for the Sparks. To her credit, she recovered and blocked the final shot of the first quarter, but she went on to commit a foul and miss her only shot of the night just minutes later.
Brianna Turner saw less than two minutes on the court, making the only shot she took.
L.A.’s rookies had their own issues but were able to work around them. Kalani Brown struggled to adjust to the officiating early in the game. She had two offensive fouls within the first nine minutes of the game, then picked up her fourth foul with just under 50 seconds left in the first half.
Brown didn’t let it bother her, though. She shot 50 percent from the floor, scoring six points, corralling five boards and blocking a shot in 21 minutes on the floor. She didn’t pick up another foul in the second half.
While it’s understandable that Smith only put up one shot, it was less understandable that veteran Briann January only shot the ball twice in almost 24 minutes on the floor. She missed both shots. January had a team-high five assists, but Brondello said they need more from her.
“I don’t know,” Brondello said when asked about January’s lack of shooting. “We need Bri. We need Bri to play defense, and she needs to be aggressive. She needs to look to be a scorer, too. We keep preaching that to her. I don’t know what was happening tonight, but she’ll be fine. She’s a fighter.”
If not for nine points from Leilani Mitchell and seven from Essence Carson, Bonner and Brittney Griner would have been the only Mercury players to score more than two points. Griner had her 38th career double-double, putting together a game-high 24 points to go with her 13 rebounds. Bonner had 22 points, four rebounds, and three assists as the only other player in double figures for Phoenix.
The importance of balanced scoring was demonstrated by the Sparks, who had four players in double figures and a fifth with eight points.
Defense and toughness needed
The Sparks could not miss. One quarter after another, their shooting percentage hovered around 50 percent. It wasn’t just chippies, either. L.A. shot 47.4 percent from beyond the arc, led by Chelsea Gray’s 4 for 6 night and Riquana Williams’ 3 for 5. If it hadn’t been for Alexis Jones and Ashley Walker missing all three of their combined shots, the worst shooting percentage on the team would have been the 40 percent accuracy of Williams.
Physicality was one area that Brondello focused on, specifically the lack of it beginning in the third quarter.
“For the first half, we had that physicality and the toughness, and we competed with them,” she said. “And, then, the second half, we just lost it. And they just have players, every single time in a one-on-one situation, they scored. Every single time we had a one-on-one situation, we never scored. It was a tough night. Tough night.”
Did the poor shooting night affect other aspects of the game? It certainly seemed that way, according to the head coach.
“We want everyone to be aggressive,” Brondello said. “And we’re missing shots, but we can’t let our effort level because we’re missing shots affect us on defense.”
What’s with the third quarter?
“The third quarter is a little bit of our Achilles heel right now,” Griner said.
The only high point for Phoenix was the center’s dunk at the 4:24 mark in the period. A two-point game at the half turned into a 12-point lead for L.A. ten minutes later.
The Mercury went 4 for 18 in the period, while the Sparks were connecting on 10 of their 17 shots. The offensive balance for L.A. was driven home. Gray had taken the offensive lead in the opening quarter, scoring 14 of her 21 points out of the gate. In the second, Williams made her impact felt. The third was time for Tierra Ruffin-Pratt to shine. While Gray dished out five assists, Ruffin-Pratt led both teams with eight points in the quarter.
Where’s my cut?
The dunk by Griner in the third quarter was her 11th in regular season play. It didn’t do much for the Mercury, but it did help one of the 10,381 fans in the arena. Every dunk by Griner wins $7,000 for a fan.
“I’m just trying to get a little bit of that,” Griner joked.
The meaning behind the evening
Griner had her critique of the team’s play, but the Pride event received nothing but praise. She also used the occasion to talk about her own work in the community.
“We haven’t really made it super, super public, but I’m doing a little project where I want to reach out to parents that are dealing with their daughters and sons coming out,” she said. “It’s just going to be an open conversation, real chill. Nothing’s going to be scripted out. I just want to talk, share my experience, because I have both sides. My mom was super, super chill with it. On the other side, it took a little time, but we got there.”
The team looks to get back on track when they visit Dallas on Thursday, June 20. They will then return to Phoenix to face the same Sparks team on June 23.
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