Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi returned to her team June 27 in historic fashion as the first WNBA player to reach the 9,000-point mark. In her three games back since missing a month with a fractured sternum, Taurasi scored 25 points on 6-of-11 shooting before following that up with 10-point and 11-point performances, respectively. Despite uneven scoring, the 17-year veteran has made her presence felt on the court by opening up the floor for her teammates and acquiring a combined 13 assists and 11 rebounds.
“There’s so many great things about Diana; it’s not just her scoring,” coach Sandy Brondello said following her recent 9,000-point milestone. “It was just great to see her back out there.”
While it will probably take until the Olympic break to fully understand how Taurasi will reintegrate with the team, these last three games provided some insight into where the Mercury stand heading into this final stretch.
With that said, here are three things we’ve learned from Taurasi’s return to Phoenix:
Mercury Will Continue to Target Griner on Offense
The Mercury have always made a point to get center Brittney Griner her touches. But after Taurasi went down, the Mercury made a more concerted effort to get Griner the ball in her spots to rack up easy baskets. Griner scored over 20 points in five of the nine games during Taurasi’s absence. She’s also leading Phoenix with a team-high 58.5 percent from the field. Overall, some of Phoenix’s best games came when Griner could take advantage of mismatches offensively, dominating through scoring or commanding attention down low to get her teammates easy looks.
With Taurasi’s return, it appears that she is still the primary ball handler in the Mercury’s offense and will reclaim primary scoring responsibilities.
However, it’s clear that even with Taurasi on the floor, Phoenix will still look to get Griner involved as much as possible. In fact, Taurasi’s presence is further improving Griner’s ability to get easy looks at the basket. The center has 56 combined points on 21-of-32 shooting in the last three games.
Over the next few games, it will be interesting to see if Griner continues to get a higher volume of shots or if Brondello will go back to a guard-oriented offense. Brondello’s decision will likely be partially determined by whether or not the Mercury are able to hit open looks.
Mercury Shooting Woes Continue
Speaking of open shots, there are plenty to go around. But capitalizing on those chances continues to be a challenge for Phoenix, even with Taurasi back on the floor.
This struggle especially came to light on July 3 during the Mercury’s 99-68 loss to the Minnesota Lynx. The Mercury shot just 32.8 percent from the field as a team and at times went long stretches without scoring.
Defenses are collapsing on Griner in hopes of forcing her to give up the ball, which usually leaves one of Kia Nurse, Sophie Cunningham or Megan Walker wide open. Opponents have slightly changed their strategy by putting some of the defensive pressure on Taurasi, but that hasn’t converted to more Mercury offense despite Taurasi having superior vision to find teammates wherever they are on the floor.
“We’ve been getting a lot of great shots all season long,” Brondello said. “We’ve just got to put the ball in the hole and be confident shooting them.”
Phoenix has tried to mix and match lineups to get additional scoring, at times starting Cunningham. In the two games Cunningham started, she shot a combined 6-of-12 from the field and 4-of-8 from three, good for 21 points. The Mercury also experimented with adding Alanna Smith to the rotation for length in Saturday night’s game against Minnesota. However, they found limited success with Smith hitting just two of her eight shots of the night, including five uncontested three-pointers.
Taurasi is still getting her legs under her, but even if she continues to be the scoring threat that she was on June 27, the Mercury will need someone else to take the load off her. Namely, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Griner will need to pick up some more buckets if Phoenix expects to make a run in the playoffs.
Even With Taurasi, Phoenix Faces Uphill Battle
The Mercury hoped that Taurasi’s return would reverse some of the unevenness plaguing the team this season. However, if the last three games are any indication, it appears that they’ll still struggle against some of the tougher teams in the league. That’s bad news considering that Phoenix’s three final games before the Olympic break are matchups against the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm.
Even if Phoenix goes on a run following the Olympics, it will be tough to break through the top three or four teams in the league. Las Vegas, Seattle and the Connecticut Sun have all taken turns looking like title contenders. Additionally, the Chicago Sky have become a threat since Candace Parker made her return, and the Washington Mystics are about to reload with a healthy roster.
This begs the question whether or not Phoenix can break through to become a title contender. While it’s foolish to count Taurasi out of the mix, and the Mercury have pushed all their chips in during the offseason, they ultimately need Nurse to become a more consistent scorer if they expect to make a deep run.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting Kia Nurse going,” Brondello noted. “We know what she’s capable of and she can. I’ve got to do a better job of hopefully getting her some positioning.”
Phoenix starts its final stretch before the break July 7 against the Aces. In their previous matchup, Las Vegas won 85-79 off 27 points from Jackie Young. The Mercury will need to keep the Aces’ posts at bay in order to take control of their next game, but if the previous matchups against Minnesota’s posts are any indication, Phoenix will likely struggle with rebounding against both the Aces and the Storm. During the last two matchups between Phoenix and Minnesota, the Lynx had their way against the Mercury on the glass with a combined 80-48 advantage, even when the Mercury played a bigger lineup.
Seattle’s length in particular will surely frustrate the Mercury in the same way Minnesota’s size did during their two-game series, and Brondello will likely give Smith and Kia Vaughn more time against the Storm. However, Phoenix’s success will ultimately depend on whether or not it can have an improved rebounding effort over these last few games.
So far, evidence of that has yet to be seen.