Did the Phoenix Mercury turn a corner against the Sparks?

Was Sunday’s win a sign of things to come or just a flash in the pan?

PHOENIX — The buzz was everywhere last week. Everyone hoped Diana Taurasi would make her season debut against the Los Angeles Sparks on June 23.

It was not to be, but the fans saw something that might be even more important: the ability of the Phoenix Mercury (3-5) to play a complete game and win, even if they have to do it without Taurasi. How did they do it and what does it mean as they head into Friday’s game against the Indiana Fever (5-6)?

Bri breaks out

Briann January had put up a mere five shots in her two previous games. She missed all five on them, scoring only four points via free throws during that stretch.

After the June 14 game against the Sparks, Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello was a bit at a loss to explain why January was taking so few shots. Nonetheless, she felt that her guard would get on track.

On Sunday, January did just that. She made as many shots as she had taken in her two previous games as she went 5-10 from the floor. Her 15 points were just one shy of her season high, which she has reached twice this year.

“I’ve told her many, many times that she should be shooting 10 shots a game,” Brondello said. “And she’ll say this; I don’t think I’m telling her something that she doesn’t (know). Sometimes she just overthinks it a little bit too much. And she’s a great little player when she’s confident and ready to shoot when she’s open.”

Confidence is key

Brondello thought that was confidence “absolutely” the basis of January’s improved shooting, but she wasn’t the only one. Both confidence and effort were much improved across the board according to the coach.

Part of that was a change in the starting line-up. For the first time this season, Leilani Mitchell was on the court at the opening tip.

“I’ve been saying why we’ve been missing Diana. It’s because of that leadership,” Brondello said. “We spoke about putting Leilani back in the last few games here, and it was obviously a perfect opportunity for us now with Diana out, and she took advantage of that. I knew she was ready. I let her know earlier today when I knew Diana wasn’t playing. She told me ‘I got this,’ and that’s confidence. She’s got confidence, she’s smart, she’s got basketball IQ, and that helps.”

Finding balance

When Phoenix and L.A. faced off back on June 14, the Sparks had four players in double digits. Phoenix had two. In fact, the Mercury had only four players score more than two points apiece that night.

That has been fairly standard for the Mercury this season. In their five losses, they have only had more than two players score in double-digits once. In their three wins, they have had at least four players reach or surpass 10 points. On Sunday, they had five for the first time all season.

The loss to Dallas in the previous game was an anomaly; it was the only time all season that at least three players scored in double digits in a loss. With DeWanna Bonner scoring 9 points, the team was very close to having four in double figures.

It led to another anomaly. Combined with the win on Sunday, it was the first time all season that the Mercury had back-to-back games that weren’t entirely reliant on Bonner and Brittney Griner to carry the offensive load. Essence Carson and Mitchell stepped up in both games. January joined the party against LA.

“We win games when we don’t have to just rely on DB and BG, so that was our focus today,” Mitchell said. “Essence did a great job today. She stepped up and knocked down some big shots and played great defense. Briann was really good attacking off the dribble as well. Everyone who came in contributed and I think we did a good job of having balanced scoring.”

Is the offense finally starting to click as a unit? The Mercury need it to — with or without Taurasi.

“Just continue to play together, continue to trust each other, continue to move the ball,” Carson said about what they need to do. “Our offense looks a lot better simply because we are moving the ball. We’re still able to get BG and DB involved, but now everyone’s involved so it makes it harder for other teams to guard. When it’s just those two involved, it’s so much easier for other teams to guard and take us out of our own offense. When we move the ball, they can’t tell who’s going to score. When we move the ball, you have five people in double figures because we do have those offensive weapons here. We are just getting used to everything. Sorry for the wait.”

And what about Taurasi?

Taurasi has been practicing for over a week, including the day before Phoenix met L.A. She wasn’t able to make the start as she hoped, though. Now what?

“Diana knows her body better than anyone,” Brondello said. “She’s a veteran. Rookies may not know their bodies. But she wasn’t ready to go. Like I said, as much as we need Diana, we’re not putting her out there until she’s 100 percent ready, because that’s not — there’s a chance of maybe getting injured. We don’t need that.”

With five days between games, she has extra time to heal before the Mercury host the Fever. Whether she plays or not, the win over the L.A. gave Phoenix something to work with going forward.

“This is a great win for us, to win without Diana because that’s growth in the team,” the coach said. “We couldn’t get any lower than what we were, but know we just got to keep building on that. But hopefully, Diana will be ready by Friday (June 28). But if not, we’ll just play it by ear.”

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