PHOENIX — It’ll take more than a plague level of injuries to put away the Phoenix Mercury.
In the latest installment of Phoenix’s topsy-turvy season, the Mercury got a win they badly needed, though it was perhaps the game they were least expected to win. Against an elite WNBA opponent, hot shooting and energetic play on both ends helped the Mercury overpower the Washington Mystics on Sunday evening, 103-82.
“Washington might have thought, oh, just seven players, but we fought and we fought hard,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello postgame, referring to the Mercury’s barren active roster for the game.
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The deep, seasoned Mystics likely did not underestimate Phoenix, but whatever happened psychologically on Sunday for each team, Washington walked away without its sixth consecutive win after entering the contest on a five-game win streak.
The MVP performance we’ve been waiting for from Griner
Going into the 2019 season, the Mercury believed they had two players who would be in competition for the MVP trophy. Between DeWanna Bonner’s versatile two-way ability and Brittney Griner’s dominance inside, Phoenix didn’t just think it would tread water with Diana Taurasi out, but stay afloat at the top of the WNBA pack.
Their wishes have not come true thus far, in part because Griner hasn’t played like the MVP she is supposed to be. Griner has been over-taxed on both ends and playing in closer confines without the spacing she has benefited form with a healthy Taurasi over the years. Against Washington on Sunday evening, however, she came alive.
“I don’t think she’s ever played any better than what she is right now,” said Brondello. “She’s developed way better control of her body and her movement.”
Griner scored 17 points in the first half and 26 total, a season high. Nobody in blue could stop her. Washington is a long, versatile team but not necessarily a team that will bludgeon opponents inside. Griner can do that, and did.
“Indiana is one that I always have pretty good games against,” Griner said, but explained Washington’s lack of size makes it easier for her as well. “It’s a small double,” she said of the Mystics’ constant double teams.
“It’s funny, because some games it clicks, and another game, it’ll be the same exact look, but it just doesn’t work. It’s crazy how every night, you just have to find the one thing that works and then capitalize on it.”
Not only did the center put up nearly 30 points, she worked hard for nine rebounds and eight assists, crushing as the true fulcrum of this team on both ends in a way not seen all season, especially considering the talent level on the other bench. When Washington did send that double team, Griner was decisive passing out of it or going up quickly for a shot from the post.
Rebounding finally leans in Phoenix’s favor thanks to Turner
Another area in which Phoenix benefited from Griner’s energy level and their size advantage over Washington was on the glass, a part of the game that has challenged the Mercury greatly most of the year. Against the Mystics, Griner and Bonner played to their standard inside, but they were also helped greatly by rookie Brianna Turner.
Spacing is not optimal when Turner plays alongside Griner, but the rookie is a smart off-ball cutter and chips in on the glass. These high-IQ habits help make the offense more efficient when she’s on the court. When Turner is aggressive defensively as well, as she was in checking MVP favorite Elena Delle Donne on Sunday, she is playable.
“Even though Delle Donne had 18 points, she had to work for those points,” said Brondello after the game.
Said Turner: “We knew we were short-handed, had a lot of injuries, but we knew it was a close game … I just wanted to come in and play hard, relieving some pressure off (Bonner) and (Griner), they obviously take on a lot for this team.”
With or without Turner, the Mercury will be ecstatic to see a lead in rebounding on the box score when they look back on this game. Phoenix has been one of the worst teams in the WNBA on the glass this season, and need to be competitive there to make the second-half surge they need.
“The only reason we didn’t play them together at the start is not because (Turner) couldn’t shoot, it was more because she wasn’t comfortable at the 4 with all the plays,” Brondello admitted, “so we just got her up to speed with that.
“She reads well. She did that well with Shepard at Notre Dame, so she understands when she should cut, but her getting closer to the basket, she understands when to cut. But her getting close to the basket, she’s in that dunker’s spot a lot, and when we’ve got shooters around, that helps and that opens up the floor. You don’t need to have everyone stretch because you need someone that out of the trap to get in there, and she’s so athletic. That helps to get off the ground before the second rotation gets in.”
Where injury luck hurt the Mercury, shooting luck saved them
Injuries are signified by the bug that bites ailing teams. We use that signifier to ascribe the randomness these things fall victim to, and it’s fitting. The Mercury are getting the worst of it right now. Just eight players dressed for the team against Washington, and after Sophie Cunningham fell to the ground in the third quarter, her exit left Phoenix with just seven healthy players (a reminder that basketball uses five of them on the court at all times).
Yet in the face of such miserable injury luck, the ball did Phoenix a ton of favors on Sunday. Rarely has this team this season had an easy go of it on offense, but they came to life, shooting 58 percent from the field, 50 from deep, and perfect from the line.
Giving credit simply to luck is unfair to the Mercury. They moved the ball better than they had all year, notching 28 assists on 39 made baskets compared with just eight turnovers. More sharing will be necessary if the short-handed squad is to stay competitive during their home-heavy schedule in the coming weeks.
“We know it was a close game there, we knew we could beat them,” Bonner said, who scored the clinching and-one bucket with 6:16 remaining in the game.
That confidence could be vital as the Mercury try to right the ship down the stretch.
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