Time is no longer on the side of the Phoenix Mercury as they await the real Diana Taurasi

The lingering recovery of Diana Taurasi coupled with unfamiliarity across the rest of the roster has left Phoenix searching for answers.

PHOENIX — No one in the Phoenix Mercury could quite put their finger on what was missing in Tuesday’s lackadaisical 82-70 loss to the Seattle Storm.

“(We) added three players at the same time,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello explained postgame. “We’ve been playing pretty good ball, and trying to integrate them, that’s no easy when you’re trying to keep everyone in rhythm.”

The return of Diana Taurasi, Essence Carson and Sancho Lyttle over the past two weeks — three presumptive playoff starters for Phoenix — have not solved the problems their absences created. A team’s moxie and style seep into the holes left by absent players. Without Taurasi, Carson and Lyttle, the team established an identity featuring a large dose of Brittney Griner and sharp ball movement. Their return has made the wheels a little creaky.

Phoenix turned the ball over 16 times against Seattle, leaving little margin for error. It could be said they beat themselves on Tuesday.

“It’s no one’s fault, we’re just trying to find our way,” Brondello said.

The weather vane for the Mercury all year has been starting point guard Leilani Mitchell, signed after a few regular season games for salary cap reasons but nevertheless a revelation in her 12th WNBA season. Mitchell was hesitant and inefficient against Seattle, a technical foul free throw counting for her sole point. Backup combo guard Yvonne Turner, typically a lightning strike compared with Mitchell’s controlled pick-and-roll game, turned the ball over twice and was 1-4. Both were hesitant to shoot even when open.

“We know what we can be,” Griner said. “I know what we can do. It’s just like, come on. I just want it to click. I don’t know what it is; I don’t know what it is.”

At times, Phoenix appears caught between motives: Throw the ball into Griner, who can score from the block against anyone these days, or keep the ball moving and get everyone involved? One is sure to lead to a solid shot, while the other can help get everyone on the same page. Both are fine options, but the Mercury just couldn’t choose, which led to all those turnovers.

“I think chemistry is one of the factors that’s hurting us right now,” Griner said. “A new rotation, people coming back into the lineup, we’ve been playing with each other, but we’ve gotta get it down. Timing, what we’re gonna do, where we’re gonna be on defense.”

The hub of the Mercury’s defense and two-time Defensive Player of the Year knows a thing or two about what it should look like, and she’s displeased. “Defense is honestly effort and chemistry,” she said. Griner doesn’t feel comfortable helping at the rim or double-teaming a scorer when she doesn’t have the repetitions necessary to build trust with the other teammate defending the interior.

A lack of familiarity is punishing the Mercury on both ends.

Brondello looks at the positives, mainly that the bench nearly put them within striking distance in the fourth quarter. And Lyttle looked good in limited minutes. The rest is in the recycling bin, compacted into lessons for the next one.

As Griner shuddered and wondered aloud what the missing ingredient was, she might as well have glanced a few feet away where Taurasi’s locker sits, midway down on the opposite side of the room. The league’s all-time leading scorer was originally supposed to return by late July, but arrived nearly a month later at less than full strength. While Griner praised Taurasi for even having the strength to get back on the court after offseason surgery, it’s clear the legend is not at 100 percent.

“I’m just glad she’s here fighting with us,” Griner said, “we just gotta get her rolling.”

Bingo.

Phoenix has an annual tradition of coming on late and pulling out unexpected playoff runs. Just two seasons ago, they finished 18-16 and made the WNBA semifinals. Their star power reigns in the league’s single-elimination first and second rounds.

What about when the star power isn’t there? Without Taurasi, and her game, which is unpredictable, efficient and exhausting to deal with, what are the Mercury but a wounded team with but a single superstar? Griner and Taurasi together form one of the most imposing duos in league history, but take one away and the recipe is less pungent.

The Mercury are the losers of nine of their last 14 games, and look wildly different one game to the next. The explanation was on the tip of Griner’s tongue and just a breath away for Brondello in the aftermath of a loss to Seattle that locked Phoenix into the bottom seed in the WNBA payoffs. Here it is: Without Taurasi, the Mercury are merely mortal. With just two games left now in the regular season, will they get her?

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