Confidence or comfort? Comfort or confidence?
Skylar Diggins-Smith doesn’t want to spend a lot of time dwelling on it. What’s working for her right now – the scoring, the 3-point shooting, the perimeter defense – is mostly a product of “being a professional”, the vet believes.
“I don’t really care to get into it,” Diggins-Smith said. “I’m having fun, having a great time with this team. Sandy (Brondello) is encouraging me to be aggressive and I’m playing good basketball. It’s some of the best basketball I’ve played with a team and one of the most exciting teams I’ve been on.”
Diggins-Smith is leading a Phoenix charge that should surprise no one. The Mercury (16-10) have won seven straight – the team’s longest win streak since 2018 – heading into a pair of road games against Indiana. Two games against the Fever come before a final stretch – the last three games of the season are against Connecticut, Seattle and Las Vegas – that will define not only their playoff position but their status as a title contender as well.
Phoenix, who has won six of these seven in a row against teams with losing records, has clinched its playoff spot Tuesday night, but currently sits in fifth place in the league standings, looking to pass Minnesota for fourth place and a first-round bye and prove they could be a playoff problem for the top seeds. History says that will likely be the case.
The last several years, Phoenix has rebounded from slow starts to make strong playoff runs, advancing to the semifinals in six of the last eight years. But the Mercury haven’t made it out of the second round in either of the past two seasons.
Diggins-Smith, in search of her first WNBA title, is making it her personal mission to get the Phoenix Mercury there.
Diggins-Smith has put up at least 20 points in four straight games, and is averaging 23.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals and shooting a blistering 69.1 percent from the 3-point arc in the last five games.
“Sky has her foot on the gas pedal right now and she is just in a different way,” said Mercury guard Shey Peddy.
Brondello, the Mercury head coach, said this is the best she’s ever seen Diggins-Smith play.
“I think it’s maturity,” Brondello said. “She knows what she can do. She knows what she’s great at and she’s comfortable. … Our players respect her, and she isn’t forcing anything.”
Why would she? The Mercury have proven over the last few weeks that they are a potent and balanced offensive team with Brittney Griner playing extremely well too – with five 20-point games in the last nine – and Diana Taurasi healthy and back in the lineup full-time to orchestrate it all. Kia Nurse, meanwhile, came up with a 21-point, 5-rebound game against Chicago that included four 3-pointers. And guard Bria Hartley, who sustained an ACL injury on August 28 last year, could be back in the lineup on Saturday against the Fever playing limited minutes off the bench on the way into the postseason.
“It’s never too late to find your stroke,” said Nurse. “We are gelling really well. We’ve had our ups and downs with injuries, but we are pretty healthy now and we have offensive weapons like no other. But defense is where we want to hang our hats.”
Defensively, Phoenix is making a statement, holding four of its last five opponents below 80 points, and perhaps most impressively shutting down Chicago star Candace Parker in Tuesday night’s win – holding her to two points on a pair of free throws and limiting her to two shots from the floor in 24 minutes. Forward Brianna Turner is being talked about as a potential defensive player of the year candidate.
Perhaps the biggest improvement in the Mercury has been their mental game.
“We are learning one another, what buttons to push to get somebody going,” Peddy said. “We know we have to stay in the game, limit our arguing with the refs and not get discouraged. It’s just a ‘next play, next play’ mentality.”
Brondello said she sees her team “buying in at both ends of the floor.”
“We control our own destiny and we don’t want to get too high or too low,” Brondello said. “We can’t get complacent. Every game is different, and mentally, I think we are in the right spot. I think that’s a credit to having a veteran team.”
Including a player on a mission like Diggins-Smith.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.