Second Round Team Preview: Phoenix Mercury

Improbable heroes make for sleepless nights. Not the bad kind of sleepless night, tossing and turning in apprehension about what lays ahead, just waiting for the alarm clock to pierce your soul. No, improbable heroes make for that good kind of sleepless night – mind abuzz, unable to settle after something truly riveting just occurred. 

Shey Peddy had a lot of people turning into work Wednesday morning with bags under their eyes and smiles still pasted across their faces. On a team headed by Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi, Peddy isn’t just an improbable hero; she’s the lead in a slightly too on-the-nose Hollywood tear-jerker. 

Last year, Peddy made her WNBA debut as a 30-year-old rookie for the Washington Mystics. The Roxbury, Massachusetts native had played seven years overseas and was cut from WNBA teams in training camp three different times. Ava Wallace, a phenomenal reporter for The Washington Post, detailed Peddy’s journey last summer, and even then after finally receiving WNBA regular season minutes, Peddy’s future was very much in question. Would she join the coaching circuit? Play elsewhere? 

Or how about, knock the team that gave her an opportunity out of the playoffs in heart-wrenching fashion? How’s that for a full circle?

Peddy was waived by the Mystics in mid-August as the team made way for former Connecticut guard Jacki Gemelos and the re-signing of rookie point guard Stella Johnson. While both players performed admirably in Washington (Johnson suffered a season-ending injury after appearing in just five games under head coach Mike Thibault), Peddy quietly signed with Phoenix, a team in desperate need of production off the bench. On Tuesday, we saw why. 

Brianna Turner played all 40 minutes and was truly stellar on defense in Phoenix’s 85-84 win, seemingly everywhere all at once to the tune of 11 rebounds and four blocks. Diggins-Smith and Taurasi played 38 and 35 minutes, respectively, both sleepwalking through the first half and electrifying in the second. Starting center Kia Vaughn was her usual sturdy self, knocking down mid-range jumpers when Washington sold out to stop Phoenix’s backcourt behind the three-point line, scoring 12 points on 6-of-10 from the field. Still, the Mercury needed a little nudge, and they found it in Peddy. 

Peddy was one of three Phoenix bench players to see action in Tuesday’s single-elimination contest. She seized her opportunity wholeheartedly, playing 27 minutes that, obviously, included crunch time. Knowing it would take a robust defensive effort to come back from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit, Peddy exerted all her effort clamping down on Washington’s perimeter threats. Just like that, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi caught fire, and what had been a bleak outlook for the Mercury quickly transformed into a rosy evening. 

“We knew the only way to get back in the game was to play defense and buckle down every possession,” said Peddy after the game. “Especially for me, I know that the majority of the plays on offense probably weren’t going to be run for me and I knew I needed to exert all my energy on defense. I hit that shot, but our defense is really what won the game for us.”

Poetic doesn’t begin to cover what went down in the final six seconds of this game. Leilani Mitchell, Washington’s point guard and a former Mercury stalwart herself, led the way for the Mystics with 25 points but missed a massive free throw with time dwindling that would’ve assured overtime as a worst-case scenario for her new team. 

On the other end, Diggins-Smith – who had never won a playoff game in the WNBA – caught the ball, drove into the lane, and identified Peddy wide-open in the opposite corner. The pass Diggins-Smith tossed was special. So was the pump-fake Peddy pulled, allowing Mitchell to fly by before collecting herself and releasing a shot that determined who would be leaving the Wubble in the next 24 hours. How was Peddy so cool? She had mere tenths of a second to beat the buzzer, and yet this shot appeared as breezy as an off-day at a private Bradenton beach. 

“That was a dream come true shot right there,” said Peddy. “That was my first ever game-winning shot and to make it on this stage at this moment, man, it’s a great feeling. 

“It’s the best feeling I’ve felt, probably ever.” 

Diggins-Smith finished with a team-high 24 points and added five assists, though folks will only remember one. 

“It speaks volumes [about]Sky for even passing [up]that shot,” said Peddy. “That’s a big-time player in a big-time moment. She could’ve easily tried to throw something up there. For her to trust me like that, that means a lot. It shows how close we are and just how much we have faith in one another and belief in one another.”

All the euphoria of a classic playoff nail-biter belied one key reality, however: Phoenix has another single-elimination game on the docket, tonight, and this one is an even harder test. The Mercury will battle fourth-seeded Minnesota at 7 PM. There’s no room for sleepy starts and mid-game ruts in this one; if Phoenix has to rely on double-digit comebacks and late game heroics, it may as well pack its bags now. 

Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said her team “didn’t play great” in Tuesday’s postgame media availability, and that the three days off “didn’t really suit us well.” Now the team is back in its normal rhythm, playing every other day. If the Mercury fall behind against Minnesota early, they’re in deep trouble. No one is more difficult to play from behind against than Cheryl Reeve’s Lynx. 

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Minnesota star center Sylvia Fowles missed the majority of the regular season with a calf injury but is listed as questionable for tonight’s contest. Phoenix has to assume she will suit up. Luckily for the Mercury, Turner is one of the few players capable of slowing Fowles in the WNBA. But can Phoenix score in the paint against a frontline of Fowles and Napheesa Collier? 

Here’s where things get really worrisome if you’re a Phoenix fan: Minnesota led the league in offensive rebounding percentage. The Mercury, meanwhile, were the worst defensive rebounding team in basketball. In addition to Fowles and Collier, players like Damiris Dantas (one of the season’s most underrated performers) and rookie Mikiah Herbert Harrigan are incredibly disruptive on the glass for the Lynx, while also stretching defenders out behind the arc. 

This makes the defensive contributions of Phoenix’s wings essential. Brondello will need another 25-to-30 minutes of lockdown, our-season-depends-on-it defense from Peddy, along with hustle from Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. If the Mercury can’t limit Minnesota’s second-chance opportunities, they are toast. 

Phoenix must win this game from deep. They’ll need 35-to-40 minutes of “we’re the best backcourt in the league” type play from Diggins-Smith and Taurasi. The absence of Lynx lockdown defender Lexie Brown to a concussion will improve Phoenix’s chances. 

I expect Brondello to seek out Minnesota star rookie point guard Crystal Dangerfield every time Phoenix has the ball. Tuesday, when I previewed Phoenix’s matchup against Washington, I discussed how often the Mercury enjoy getting Taurasi mismatched onto smaller guards. We’ll see a ton of this tonight. Taurasi is a good enough passer that if a double-team comes, she’ll calmly pass out of it, leaving Phoenix with a 4-on-3 advantage it can attack. 

Defensively, things are a little more unclear. If Fowles plays, what can Phoenix do to slow Collier? Putting Turner on Collier pulls her out of the paint, where she excels. Where Vaughn was instrumental on Tuesday, she might have a tougher time in this matchup guarding Fowles. But having Turner guard Fowles means Collier may have a field day. The answer might be more Alanna Smith, who can switch everything much like Turner. Either way, Phoenix will be tested on the defensive end and especially the defensive glass. There’s no surviving a lackluster half against Reeve’s group. 

Even if Phoenix can’t prevail tonight, the Mercury were able to enjoy one of those playoff moments you’ll never forget. There’s immense value in that. 

As Brondello said postgame, echoing the sentiments of basketball fans all across Arizona, “My soul left me, but then it came back after that big shot.” 

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