NEW YORK, NY — The 2015 season came to a disappointing end for the Phoenix Mercury, as they bowed out of the Western Conference Finals in somewhat controversial fashion to their nemesis, the Minnesota Lynx. But with Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor rejoining the team, and much of the 2015 roster returning, all signs pointed to another deep playoff run. League GMs even picked them as the most likely to win the WNBA championship in their preseason survey.
Fast forward four months, and things have not quite gone to plan at the Talking Stick Resort Arena. The likes of Taurasi and Taylor have boosted the Mercury into one of the most high-powered attacks in the league, their 104.2 offensive rating placing them fourth among all teams. But there’s no cliche that says offense wins championships. It’s defense that does that, and the Mercury haven’t been able to stop a soul this year.
Behind the long arms of Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner, the Mercury were a stout defensive bunch last year, finishing with the fourth best defensive rating in the league at 94.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. But this year has seen a swift reversal, with Phoenix’s defensive rating a full 10 points worse, the 104.6 mark leaving them ninth in the league. Their rebound percentage (percentage of available rebounds a team grabs) of 48 percent is 10th in the league. They allow opponents to shoot 36.7 percent from downtown, last in the league.
Nothing had been working on the defensive end, and as such, the team remains under .500 at 13-16. With just five games remaining on the schedule, they hold a loose grip on the seventh seed in the postseason race.
The same talent that lead GMs to tap them as title favorites back in May is still around. Bolstered in fact by the trade for Kelsey Bone, last year’s Most Improved Player, mid-way through the season. Everyone is healthy, or at least as healthy as you can be late in the season. Six of the current players were on the team that won the WNBA title in 2014. Brittney Griner is arguably the most imposing interior defender in the history of the league. Diana Taurasi is one of the greatest leaders to ever wear a WNBA jersey, and is quite capable of putting a team on her back. If ever there was a team that could flip the switch come playoff time, this Mercury bunch would seem to be the one.
And coming out of the Olympic break it seemed like they had. Phoenix won their first three games, including a defeat of the mighty Los Angeles Sparks, which was one of their best defensive performances of the year. They held the Sparks’ league-leading offense to just 66 points, their lowest output of the season, and also forced the Sparks into a season-high 21 turnovers.
That stretch, along with the previously stated facts, have the Mercury feeling confident they can still have postseason success–despite dropping their last two, including Saturday night’s matchup with the New York Liberty.
When asked if she believed her team could figure things out in the playoffs, head coach Sandy Brondello said, “Yeah I think so. We showed it in the first three things out of the break.” Diana Taurasi echoed those sentiments, but was a bit more confident. “Yeah definitely,” the three-time champion told WNBA.com. “We showed three games after the Olympic break that that’s the way that we can play.”
In order to actually make that turn around happen, the defense will have to play like they did coming out of the Olympic break. As Brondello remarked postgame on Saturday, “We have to hang our hat on defense. Defense and rebounding wins championships and we didn’t do either very good tonight.”
It isn’t one specific aspect she believes, but rather buying in as a unit. “Just team defense and having congestion behind the ball,” she told reporters, when asked if there was anything specific they needed to fix. “We just gotta be loading it up a bit and have a sense of urgency.”
DeWanna Bonner agreed, telling WNBA.com, “It comes down to defense. Of course we missed a couple shots, but we can still play defense and stop people, and show a little fight.”
“We got a couple games to get it together,” Bonner continued. “So we’ll go back home and work on the defense a little bit.”
Of course, the Mercury still need to clinch a playoff spot, but that pressure isn’t affecting their experienced squad, least of all Taurasi. “I just play. I never really focus on the pressure of anything but just playing.”
With Taurasi leading the way, and the rest of the talented squad feeling confident in their abilities, the Mercury, could be quite dangerous early in the playoffs, especially with the new single elimination format in the first two rounds. And maybe, just maybe, they can still make the kind of noise in the postseason that everyone expected back in May.
Which, as DeWanna Bonner put it Saturday night, “Sounds like a plan.”