Taurasi’s Return Opens Offense for Diggins-Smith, Griner as Mercury Make Playoff Push

The Big Three of the Phoenix Mercury are finally playing basketball together on a consistent basis. That’s a fact Phoenix has wanted to be true for nearly two years, but due to Brittney Griner’s early exit in 2020 and Diana Taurasi battling injury for a majority of the 2021 season, Skylar Diggins-Smith lacked consistent playing time with her other star teammates. 

In the seven games since the Olympic break, the Mercury are finally playing with a completely healthy roster and have been unbeaten so far. While some of Phoenix’s success can be attributed to a much easier schedule compared to the first half, health has a lot to do with the Mercury’s recent run.

With their three stars on the floor together, the Mercury are punishing defenses that choose to double-team any of their players. As a result, Diggins-Smith and Griner are getting better looks than they have all season.

Following the return from the Olympic break, Diggins-Smith is shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 60.0 percent (almost double her career average) from beyond the arc. While being a volume scorer is nothing new for Diggins-Smith this season, her hot shooting can largely be attributed to Taurasi’s return.

“Before the break, I had the ball in my hands a majority of the time, running plays,” Diggins-Smith said. “Now having a big threat like Diana, it means you can’t guard all three of us.” 

Since Taurasi’s return, Diggins-Smith has been playing off the ball more. This allows her to get in more catch-and-shoot situations rather than having the ball in her hands the majority of the time. 

The Mercury relied on Diggins-Smith to play the point guard position in Taurasi’s absence. This led to more traps and contested shots. When Diggins-Smith attempted to make the right play and pass to an open role player, Phoenix struggled to convert on those opportunities. In fact, prior to the All-Star break, the Mercury had the second-worst three-point percentage (31.1) in the league. 

Phoenix tried to mix and match lineups while Taurasi was out and at times found success with Sophie Cunningham playing on the wing. However, nobody could completely take the pressure off Diggins-Smith as defenses focused entirely on slowing her and Griner down. In many cases, if Diggins-Smith couldn’t get the offense going, the Mercury stagnated on that side of the ball altogether.

However, in the second half, Phoenix’s Big Three have suddenly become one of the league’s most lethal offensive combinations. Although the Mercury know the regular season means little without the postseason results, they are well aware that they’re playing their best basketball of the season right now.

“I like the basketball that we’re playing right now,” Diggins-Smith said. “I feel good about it, but I feel like we haven’t really done anything yet. We still need to continue to go and finish this road trip strong, and that’s definitely in the front of my mind right now.”

Not only has Taurasi’s return opened things up for Diggins-Smith, but the entire team has also improved collectively with its leader back on the floor. Since coming back from the break, the Mercury improved to 40.4 percent from beyond the arc, good for first in the league. In addition, they’re shooting a league-best 49.3 percent from the field. 

Griner is also dominating teams inside, averaging 21.0 ppg after the break as the beneficiary of a more balanced attack.

“When [Griner and Diggins-Smith] get comfortable, our teammates feed off of that,” Taurasi said. “There’s been a sense of confidence that if we could get healthy, we would turn it around a bit, and we’ve always been a second half team.” 

Coach Sandy Brondello has always believed that many of Phoenix’s early losses could be chalked up to shots not falling. Now that the shooting has improved, she is seeing the potent offense she knew the Mercury were designed to run. After reaching the Olympic break in the bottom half of the league in scoring (79.8 ppg), Phoenix suddenly leads the league with 89.4 ppg in the second half. The Mercury’s 106-79 thrashing of the New York Liberty is recent proof of how much better of an offensive team they are when all three stars are healthy.

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“I just think we’re building really good momentum,” Brondello said. “We’re building the trust that you need to be successful at both ends of the floor.”

Phoenix suddenly went from having to fight for a playoff spot to now being in position to take one of the top spots. The Mercury currently sit in fifth place and within striking distance of the coveted fourth seed in the WNBA Playoffs. The Minnesota Lynx currently have control of the last bye, but they only lead Phoenix by a game in the standings.

Knocking off the Lynx certainly won’t be an easy task. They are also playing their best basketball of the season—winning eight of their last 10 games— and have a schedule far easier than Phoenix’s. That means the Mercury will have to continue to get a lot from their Big Three, especially Diggins-Smith, if they want to earn that last bye for the playoffs.

Phoenix will have its true playoff test at the end of the season when it plays the Connecticut Sun, Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces in an eight-day stretch. The Mercury’s game against Seattle on Sept. 17 may be the Mercury’s most consequential game. If they continue playing the way they have, that matchup could determine the last bye in the playoffs. And if the Mercury finish strong, it should bode well for their chances to be a championship contender.

 

  

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