The Phoenix Mercury have bigger problems than just the back injury that has sidelined Diana Taurasi for the past two months.
PHOENIX — Veteran teams are supposed to be able to defend.
Inexperience is considered the biggest roadblock for defensive excellence, which conversely means young WNBA players should be expected to struggle defensively. Phoenix, the title favorites in some corners, whose starters Sunday afternoon against Los Angeles boast 55 years of WNBA experience altogether, should not have this problem.
Still, defense has not only been a problem, but a disaster. Phoenix has the fourth-worst defensive rating in the WNBA, according to Positive Residual. They had allowed teams to shoot 43 percent from deep entering Sunday’s contest and have been blown out on the glass night after night, even in victory.
Beating the Sparks at home, 82-72, and limiting them to 37 percent shooting from the field, was vital for a Phoenix team that already has to be peeping the standings on a nightly basis, nervous about their positioning.
“We just got tired of losing,” said coach Sandy Brondello postgame.
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Yet spirit only accounts for so much. Energy and hustle can be demanded during morning walkthroughs, but execution happens on the court. Communication flows from mouth to ear and down into feet only in the thick of action.
All of that was better for Phoenix on Sunday as they held the Sparks to just 30 points in the second half. The Mercury defense kicked into gear after Los Angeles pushed the ball in transition in the first quarter for several open 3s.
Tiera Ruffin-Pratt, who helped the Sparks get off to that hot start, hit the bench with foul trouble midway through the first and no one was able to find the rhythm she developed. Aside from Ruffin-Pratt’s deep shooting, Los Angeles was just 5-20 from behind the arc.
Perhaps most importantly, the Sparks’ All-Star playmaker Chelsea Gray was unable to affect the game consistently. The last time these teams faced — June 14 — Gray put up 21 points and 9 assists, stretching the floor vertically with deep pull-up bombs that pulled Mercury center Brittney Griner out of the paint.
“Gray is an amazing player, not just with the ball in her hands but her passing ability,” Brondello said. “We just tried to mix up defensively what we wanted to do but one on one, Bri (January) did a fantastic job and made sure every shot was contested.”
This time around, Phoenix sent a big to hedge the screen on the pick-and-roll and get a body in front of Gray as she tried to turn the corner. Their help defense behind the play held up, and Gray finished the night 2-13 for just 7 points.
Loosening up at the point of attack has hurt the Mercury this year, said wing starter Essence Carson, but locking down Gray was a sign of progress.
“It causes a lot of scrambling, a lot of over-helping, but we really focused on staying in the first action,” she said. “If they do get out of it, it’s OK because we didn’t need the third or fourth person to come over and help, and now they can get back to their man.”
The Mercury are best when they limit Griner’s responsibility. Everyone has a help responsibility to squeeze an offense in the halfcourt, each player knows their duty to stay attached through screens to avoid leaving Griner on an island on the perimeter. Few teams have the luxury of someone who can clean up at the rim like Griner, but the Mercury know they must execute in front of her as well.
“We made sure that we didn’t only pressure in the key but also pressured beyond the 3-point line,” Carson said.
With so little floor-spacing while Candace Parker works her way to full health and Maria Vadeeva is overseas, the Sparks were the perfect prey for Phoenix’s aggressive, tuned-up defense.
Transition was the only cleanup necessary, and the Mercury scrubbed it spotless after a broken first quarter.
“It’s tough, it takes communication,” said starting guard Briann January postgame. “And it takes hard work. You’ve gotta bust your ass back down the court, get in position, stay between them and the basket and then load up to the ball, wherever that is, so you’re helping.”
Perhaps this version of the Sparks was not suited to punish the Mercury. Parker is a grab-and-go threat at her peak, and Alana Beard is a dynamic finisher in space when she is right. Neither is fully healthy, but the impact of controlling the pace trickles back to offense and helped Phoenix dictate the terms of engagement. It is a huge reason they won the game.
While the Mercury can look to Taurasi’s return as a buoy for the offense, their defense will lean on the same pillars that set it up to succeed on Sunday. Full depth later in the year will help as well, plus further development from the team’s three rookies. But at 3-5, the Mercury can hardly wait on those maybes.
“We couldn’t get any lower than what we were (after three straight losses),” Brondello said, “but now we just gotta keep building on that.”
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