The Phoenix Mercury need Diana Taurasi to find her rhythm

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The Phoenix Mercury went the season with the expectation that Diana Taurasi would return to the lineup mid-season and there would be enough time for her to get back to playing at an elite level.

Last season, Taurasi was tied with A’Ja Wilson as the third-leading scorer in the league with an average of 20.7 points. She also dished out 5.3 assists per game and produced an impressive 1.114 points per possession (94th percentile) on scoring possessions. She was the only player who ranked within the top five in both averages for points and assists last season.

Taurasi was provided with a 10-12 week timetable for return following an operation to correct a disc protrusion in her back that she underwent in late April. She reaggravated her back after making her season debut in July against the Connecticut Sun. It wasn’t until late August that she returned to the lineup once again. She then suffered a hamstring injury and missed a matchup with the Minnesota Lynx last week with just one game left before the playoffs.

With the playoffs just around the corner, Taurasi has been unable to build a rhythm due to nagging injuries and she understands that improvement is needed. She has looked like a significant liability instead of one of the greatest players in WNBA history. She has played in just six regular-season games and has averaged 4.3 points (10.3% FG, 4.2% 3P, 94.4% FT), 3.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists. 0.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, and 2.1 turnovers.

There is significant room for improvement for Taurasi in the scoring department. She has produced a mere 0.433 points per possession (5th percentile) on scoring possessions so far this season. Her efficiency has ranked last among the 125 players in the league that has logged over 50 possessions. That is simply a level of execution that is poor that at some point, it will be difficult to justify letting her play.
There has been a heavy reliance on jump shooting for Taurasi and she has badly struggled to execute. She has gone 2-of-33 (6.1%) on jump shots so far this summer and these attempts have accounted for 84.6% of her overall volume of field goal attempts. It’s very troubling considering how she was the league’s highest volume jump shooter just a season ago and was doing it with supreme accuracy.
Most of the jump shots that Taurasi has attempted during her few appearances this summer have been off the dribble. She has gone 2-of-27 (7.4%) on these particular attempts and these shots have accounted for 69.2% of her field goal attempts. The inconsistency has gone beyond just missing all but two attempts. In fact, the ways that the shots have missed have varied substantially and that suggests inconsistency in shooting mechanics.

The Mercury needs Taurasi to at least be able to drill catch-and-shoot jumpers if she isn’t going to be able to re-gain her pull-up shooting prowess this season. She has gone 0-of-6 (0%) on these attempts and these sequences make up 15.4% of her field goal attempts. It’s not a large enough sample size to draw any substantial conclusions from but it’s still somewhat concerning.

It hasn’t been much better for Taurasi when she has tried to get to the basket. She is shooting 2-of-6 (33.3%) on finishes around the basket and these shots have accounted for 15.4% of her field goal attempts. That is a drop decline in efficiency for a player that led the WNBA for field goal percentage on finishes around the basket (72.5%) and on floaters (61.5%) within the half-court last season.

There has been a concerning amount of turnovers from Taurasi with a fair amount of them being the result of head-scratching mistakes. It’s natural to expect an adjustment period for a player that is coming back from an injury and she is no exception. However, the Mercury needs her to turn her performance around as soon as possible for them to have any chance in the playoffs.

Considering how Taurasi has played in twice as many games as she has made field goals, the scoring department has been quite problematic for her. Whether she has tried running the pick-and-roll, coming off-screens, spotting up, pushing the pace in transition, nothing has clicked for her as a scorer. That could either mean that she is in for a serious correction in her output closer to her regular levels, or that it’s simply too late for her to get back on track.
The lone area on the offensive end of the floor where Taurasi has shown flashes of her regular impact has been facilitation. Despite experiencing uncharacteristically poor turnovers, she has still produced a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. Creating shots for her teammates is something that she is going to need to do at an extraordinarily high level given how poorly she has been executing as a scorer and defender.

The attempt to integrate Taurasi back into the mix and her being in and out of the lineup has created inconsistency for the Mercury. They were on a three-game losing streak heading into their regular-season finale against the Las Vegas Aces and have gone 2-4 in games that Taurasi has played. The risk is certainly worthwhile given how talented of a player they have that just needs time to find a rhythm, but it just appears to be that it’s too late.
The message that head coach Sandy Brondello had after the Mercury’s 82-70 loss to the Seattle Storm was that they need Taurasi to keep being aggressive. However, Brondello also noted that their other players can’t become passive trying to get Taurasi back into the fold by deferring to her. Mostly, she wanted to make it clear that the expectations surrounding her this season appear to have been unreasonable given her age.
“Diana had two practices where we went down and back,” Brondello said. “I mean seriously. She’s 37. She worked so hard just to get back because she wanted to come back and help us. I knew it was going to take her a few games to get into it because this is the best players in the world.
“The expectations of people and maybe her expectations were a little bit bigger too. I know she’s going to be fine. She’s one of the toughest people I know. We just need her to stay aggressive. We need everyone to stay aggressive. They can’t defer to Diana. We’ve got to help here a little bit as well.”
The hope right now for the Mercury is that they manage to somehow flip a switch and their execution elevates when the playoffs start. Facing a single-elimination game on the road with Taurasi not having any momentum whatsoever appears to be a daunting task. The hamstring injury just seems to have been the worst timed momentum blocking occurrence for her after finally being able to play in five consecutive games.
“I’m just waiting for us to get rolling,” Brittney Griner told the Arizona Republic. “When the playoffs come, every year it normally goes to another level. I’m just hoping we go to the next level.
“I feel awesome, I’m just frustrated a little bit. I know what we can do. It’s just like damn it, c’mon. I just want us to click.”
While it appears unlikely, the idea that Taurasi is due for a positive regression should scare other teams. She has been scoring with such poor efficiency that if such a phenomenon were to occur, she would be scorching everything in sight on the basketball court. That would theoretically be a legitimate weapon for the Mercury in the playoffs if that theory were to translate to reality. It just doesn’t seem realistic at this point.
What seems to have happened to the Mercury this season is that they learned just how important Taurasi is to their team and how damaging it is for them to not have her in regular form. Facing a road single-elimination matchup to start the playoffs only complicates the cost-benefit factor of trying to re-integrate her this late into the year.
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Grant Afseth is an Indiana Pacers columnist for the Kokomo Tribune and a Phoenix Mercury writer for WNBAInsidr.

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