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By MIKE LIPKA, STATS Writer

Missing one of their top players and losing their first four games, the Phoenix Mercury didn't begin defense of their first WNBA championship with much promise.

As they head into July, however, a repeat doesn't seem out of the question.

The Mercury will look to finish a five-game road trip with a fourth consecutive victory on Tuesday when they meet the Atlanta Dream, who are still seeking their first win in franchise history.

Phoenix (7-7) was looking for answers early this season after dropping its first four games and six of its first eight, with three of those losses coming at home.

The Mercury have also played all season without Penny Taylor, who averaged 17.8 points and 6.3 rebounds last year but is currently training with the Australian national team.

"I have a little hangover," Mercury first-year coach Corey Gaines said. "It's called 'Pennyitis.' I'm missing Penny."

Even without Taylor, however, the Mercury have picked up their play, winning five of their last six games. After losing the first game of their Eastern Conference trip at New York, they've averaged more than 91 points in victories at Washington, Chicago and Connecticut.

Perhaps more important has been improved defense. The Mercury are still allowing a league-high 88.9 points per game, but they've given up only 83.0 in their last three, holding their last two opponents under 36 percent shooting from the field.

"Corey Gaines has been doing an amazing job," guard Diana Taurasi said. "He got a lot of flak at the beginning when we weren't rolling. He's made some key adjustments and I think that's why we're playing better."

Connecticut shot just 35.4 percent Sunday in an 87-80 loss to Phoenix, which swept the season series against a team that's tied for first place in the East. Taurasi had 25 points and Tangela Smith added a season-high 21 and 11 rebounds for her second straight double-double.

"Just trying to be more aggressive," Smith said. "I'm hitting shots that I've been getting. My teammates have been getting me the ball, so I've just been concentrating and staying aggressive."

She'll try to stay that way as the Mercury face the expansion Dream (0-15) for the first time in the regular season, hoping to extend Atlanta's league-record losing streak.

The Dream, though, were competitive in road losses to the East's top two teams over the weekend. They lost 109-101 in overtime at Connecticut on Friday before falling 100-92 at Detroit Sunday.

They're hoping the emergence of rookie Tamera Young can help them to their first victory. Young has averaged 8.2 rebounds in her last six games, and she had a season-high 26 points against the Shock.

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