How The Phoenix Mercury Are Winning Despite Mounting Injuries

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Earlier this week, news broke of a scientific breakthrough in Arizona. The University of Arizona announced that the school’s Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center had snuffed out a potential COVID outbreak by testing wastewater from student dormitories. The Center’s Director Ian Pepper said that the virus showed up in one dorm’s wastewater and, when the school tested each of the dorm’s residents, two asymptomatic students tested positive and were quarantined. In the most basic terms, Dr. Pepper, a professor of poop-logy, potentially saved lives and the school year by testing student’s toilet water. 

Yet, Dr. Pepper may be getting outshined by Arizona’s other scientific marvel: Diana Taurasi. The 38-year old has turned back the clock in 2020 and produced some truly jaw-dropping performances. She has led the Phoenix Mercury to 5 straight wins despite the team missing Brittney Griner (personal reasons) and Bria Hartley (torn ACL). 

DT is not the only reason why the Mercury have seemingly gotten better without two of their best players and often playing with seven players due to other injuries. The whole team has been spectacular as of late, especially Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brianna Turner, and the GOAT (if you believe very popular t-shirts). Let’s see how Phoenix is playing so well by looking at those three players in-depth.

Diana Taurasi is Always Open 

Like Dr. Pepper in front of a vat of wastewater, Diana Taurasi is completely comfortable shooting from anywhere right now. (Okay that’s my last Dr. Pepper joke. I have the utmost respect for that man and his work since I first heard of the effort a few months ago. In a TV interview, he said “poop never lies,” so he’s clearly in on the joke.) Taurasi’s numbers over the last five games are astonishing even for her: 26 points per game, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.8 assists. Her shot chart over this time is similarly insane and shows what is happening: DT is pulling up from anywhere. 

Some of the absurdity is explained by hot and likely unsustainable three-point shooting. During the winning streak, Diana is shooting almost 46% on 12.2 three-point attempts per game (!!!). But Diana is also doing this because she has to. Without Brittney Griner or Bria Hartley to work into the offense, Diana can take whatever shot she wants to. She also largely needs to not only to make up for the scoring gap but give the rest of the team time to breathe. 

When DT pulls up from that deep either in transition or in the half court, the rest of the offense doesn’t have to run a play. It’s a brilliant way to conserve energy for a short-handed squad, much like the strategic fouls that the Mercury have done in the past few games. While Phoenix would love to have their entire squad, the circumstances have forced simplicity onto them and that’s perfect for a great player like Diana Taurasi. 

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. If you’re open, you have to shoot it,” said Taurasi after the team’s win over Las Vegas. “We’re just keeping it really simple. Trust a pass, if you’re open, shoot it . . . That’s the beauty of only having seven or eight players: if you don’t do it, there’s no one else to do it.” 

Diana Taurasi always believes that she is open, so she is always shooting. She is also getting help from some hot mid-range shooting from Kia Vaughn in the pick-and-roll. Vaughn’s ability to shoot out of the short roll forces teams to account for her and any sliver of space leads to a shot from DT. 

Taurasi’s confidence is rubbing off on her teammates. Rather, she is dousing her teammates with confidence and yelling at them to be aggressive. Before the Vegas game, DT told Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to be Lou Williams (a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in the NBA with bold shooting tactics). Shatori put up 15 points on 5 of 10 shooting in that game and followed it up with another double-digit performance against Indiana. As Walker-Kimbrough explained to Danny Thompson, Diana and the rest of the team empowered her to do that. 

“My teammates are always giving me confidence on both sides of the ball, so does the coaching staff. Diana just said like, ‘we don’t have time to not be aggressive.’ When the people around you have confidence in you, you have no choice but to be confident,” said Walker-Kimbrough. 

Skylar Diggins-Smith Having Fun

Skylar Diggins-Smith has not quite exploded like Diana Taurasi has in the past five games. Her scoring averages are up (from 17.2 to 21.4 points per game) even as her shooting percentage has decreased. Her three-point shooting, which has been at a career-high all season, has also ticked up a bit. But really, the biggest difference in Skylar’s game recently may be that she is having more fun. 

“This is her team [along with]Diana. They need to be there and just playing like [leaders]but also having fun, not putting so much pressure on herself,” Head Coach Sandy Brondello explained to Michelle Vopel. “I think earlier in the year, she put a little bit too much pressure on herself. But now she’s just letting the game come to her and you see the great results that she’s having.”

From a human perspective, it’s not hard to understand this. Skylar said at the team’s media day that she was conflicted about being in the Wubble with everything going on in the world. Between those feelings, having to get used to this incredibly odd environment, and learning to play with two all-time greats, she likely faced a heavy emotional and mental burden and played very well while managing all that. Now, she has had time to adjust and get to know her teammates better. It seems likely that she would be playing with more joy and freedom now. 

From a basketball perspective, Skylar is benefitting from the same simplicity that DT is. Brittney Griner, while a great player, is not the easiest person to adjust to as a scoring guard. As Richard Cohen alluded to in his W Dozen, guards have to work to get angles to feed BG in the post and learn to get into those positions. 

Now, the challenge for Skylar is to create space and either shoot or draw defenders to loosen up a teammate. She is getting downhill, finding cutters, and banging home open threes more often recently. In short, Skylar gets to play the way she used to in Dallas and is having a ball doing it. 

Brianna Turner’s Historic Stretch

I feel bad about putting Brianna Turner at the end of this article because she’s been jaw-dropping since Griner got hurt. There are some incredible stats about her performance over the last five games, so I’m going to list them out: 

  • She has blocked 22 shots in that span, which is 10 more than any other player in the league. 
  • If Brianna Turner was a team, she would rank third in blocks in the last five games behind the Mercury and the New York Liberty. 
  • She has more blocks than the players with the 4th and 5th most blocks in the WNBA in that time combined, one of whom is her teammate Alanna Smith. 
  • Her 4.4 blocks per game in this time would be a WNBA-record in that category by a wide margin.
  • Against Indiana, Turner put up 16 points, 12 rebounds, 6 blocks, and 4 assists. Only two other players have put up that line in WNBA history: Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker. (Thanks to Across the Timeline for those last two stats). 

So when Diana Taurasi says something like the following quote, it doesn’t sound crazy at all. 

“If that kid (Turner) is not the best defensive player in the league, I don’t know who is. I mean, she’s just so impressive when we go and watch film. She guards everyone on the court every possession and then goes and gets the rebound for us. She’s incredible and she’s only going to get better.” 

Turner is getting a lot of these blocks in one-on-one coverage rather than in help defense. She is switching very effectively and even blocking jumpers. Griner is a tremendous defender with two Defensive Player of the Year awards and has led the league in blocks for the last 7 years. There’s no replacing her. But Turner has kept the defense at the same level since her departure (seventh over the entire season, sixth over the last five games). 

Offensively, Turner’s energy and constant movement gives the Mercury a new dimension. She can fly around, be a great rim runner, and grab offensive boards. Phoenix is even using her in DHOs on the elbow like the Miami Heat do with Bam Adebayo (I apologize for the NBA reference but there’s no way I was not mentioning the Heat right now). Her passing instincts open up DT and Skylar Diggins-Smith for threes and create driving lanes. 

Brianna Turner is not better than Brittney Griner. But she is different on both ends and the Mercury have adjusted to allow her to help the team tremendously. They have found something in Turner’s recent run, which will pay dividends now and in the future. 

The Phoenix Mercury may come crashing back to Earth at some point this season. They may even lose in the first round of the playoffs again and the season may feel like a failure. But over the past five games, they have shown the fight and grit that Diana Taurasi has famously imbued on the franchise. They have also shown a ton of creativity and poise to adjust to their current situation. I’m more optimistic about their future and present now than I was a week ago. Maybe that’s silly and reactionary, but the Mercury have been that good lately.

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