The Mercury are almost completely healthy now but faced some of the same old problems against the Sky on Sunday.
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Mercury ran out to a 10-point lead in the first half of the Sunday’s game, but let the game slip away in the back half of the contest with the Chicago Sky, 94-86. Despite having their roster almost complete again, many of the same issues that have plagued them throughout the season led to their downfall once again.
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Almost everyone in
The big news, of course, was the return of Diana Taurasi. She wasn’t the only important piece who was back in play. Sancho Lyttle also returned to the court, although she didn’t start.
Phoenix is still missing Essence Carson, and Alanna Smith is gone for the season after undergoing ankle surgery. The team is as complete as they have been all year, though.
Taurasi said that she doesn’t think there will be chemistry problems, and the coordination between her and Brittney Griner (among others) seemed to back that up.
“I think that is the beauty of this team is we just all fall back into where we need to be,” Taurasi said. “We all work in different places on the court and we are never in each other’s way. We just have to find a way to stay lethal on offense and do a better job defensively on their key players.”
Taurasi, along with the other two members of the Big Three, scored in double figures, but her impact on her teammates was probably more important.
“She reads things before they happen,” coach Sandy Brondello said. “She’s one of the best passers ever. She has great court vision and she knows when to get other people involved as well. She’s a leader. It’s a lot of intangibles. She didn’t score the ball well tonight, but she’s a very capable scorer as we know. I think the more games we play the better we get. It’s actually good that she came back now because we still have six games to go and get into a rhythm.”
The Mercury is hoping to make another run in the playoffs. With a functional Big Three, that could well be in the cards. But first, they have to get there.
The team is holding onto the final playoff spot after Sunday’s game. At 13-15, they are four games ahead of the 10-19 Indiana Fever in the loss column and they won the season series. The Mercury still has six games to play, while Indiana has just five on the schedule to overtake Phoenix.
Back in May, the Mercury’s stated hope was to avoid the one-and-done early rounds of the playoffs this season. At this point, the team will be happy just to get that far.
“Our goal is just to get to the playoffs,” Brondello said. “If we can stay healthy, we’ll just go with the knockout rounds again.”
That third quarter
Phoenix has made a habit of coming out flat in the second half. On Sunday, the third quarter was once again a killer for the home team.
The Mercury went into the locker room with an 8-point lead after outscoring the Sky in both of the opening quarters. Phoenix built the lead to as many as 10 points before giving it all away.
The Sky pulled off a 20-point turnaround, taking a 10-point deficit and turning it into a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Most of that came on the back of a strong third quarter.
Chicago came out of the locker room and immediately started chipping away. At the 5:57 mark, they had tied it up. When the third horn blew, they had outscored the Mercury by 13 points over the 10-minute period.
“It was the five-minute stretch in I think it was the third quarter where it was just really bad,” Griner “They went on a run and then it was kind of like we were chasing them. We were getting close, but we couldn’t get over the hump. I don’t think it was too different, but of course, they amped up their defense a little bit. I’d have to look at the film. I don’t know what happened, I just remember there was a stretch where we weren’t scoring at all.”
The defensive effort was probably a bigger blow than the Mercury’s offense. Phoenix went 7-16 in the quarter with Griner scoring 9 of the team’s 15 points. Chicago, on the other hand, went 12-19 with Courtney Vandersloot dishing out five assists and Diamond DeShields putting up 12 points. Giving up 63.2 percent shooting coming out of the half was a difficult hurdle for the Mercury to overcome.
Rebounding is the ever-present Achilles heel of the Mercury. Sunday was no different. Chicago out-rebounded Phoenix 47-34.
What hurt the most was the Sky’s offensive rebounding. Chicago pulled down 15 offensive boards to just 5 for Phoenix. That turned into a 15-7 advantage in second-chance points–the difference in the game.
“If we would have taken away the second-chance points in the first half, it would have been a different game. We would have won,” Griner said.
Griner laid the rebounding issues at the feet of the team as a group, saying that it’s a team responsibility.
The problem was that the only members of the team with more than 4 rebounds each were Griner (7) and DeWanna Bonner (11). Griner was the only one to pull down more than a single offensive board.
Coach on the floor
As the media circled around Taurasi to ask about her return, Bonner was busy going over game situations with a teammate. Bonner recalled an open shot that she felt should have been taken, encouraging the teammate to take those shots.
When asked if she liked to play coach, Bonner laughed and quickly dismissed the idea. Her own coaches aren’t so sure.
“She’s a great coach on the floor,” Mercury assistant coach Julie Hairgrove said.
The Mercury travel to New York Tuesday to take on the Liberty. A win by Phoenix would eliminate New York from playoff contention, giving the Mercury a little more breathing room.
A win by Phoenix coupled with a loss by Indiana would guarantee the Mercury a playoff spot. The Fever host Las Vegas on Tuesday.
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