The Mercury are Trying to Avoid Retrograde

WNBA League Pass should consider a separate subscription tier for the Phoenix Mercury—they’ve given us that much drama in 2022. 

First, a bench altercation between Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith; then, a behind-closed-doors “contract divorce” with star Tina Charles, followed by the team having loud and explicit words for her the following game. The first half of the season closed on a personnel cliffhanger of sorts, too, after Skylar reacted to some clumsy words by her head coach Vanessa Nygaard with a clown emoji on Twitter. 

If the Mercury don’t win a championship this year, at the very least they should be in the running for a daytime Emmy. 

Within all this chaos, though, something interesting happened, evidenced in the team’s last outing before the All-Star break against the New York Liberty. 

Immediately from the tip, Phoenix was the aggressor. Despite a smaller lineup featuring Taurasi at the four and Brianna Turner at the five—covering the likes of Stef Dolson and Natasha Howard—the Mercury held tough underneath the basket on defense. They corralled rebounds from taller players and were aggressive in the passing lanes, getting tips and deflections to keep their opponents off balance. 

The team really shined on the offensive end. Playing sometimes five out, Phoenix spread the floor, allowing Sophie Cunningham open looks at three. When New York closed out on her shots, she was able to take it to the basket, erupting for 17 first-quarter points.

The Mercury went on to win and stay in contention for a 2022 playoff berth. They are eighth in the standings, in the mix with three other teams vying for the last two playoff spots. To give a sense of how close this race is: As of July 23, Phoenix’s win percentage is .006 better than the team currently in ninth place. 

How, despite an unprecedented level of distractions (many of which are self-inflicted), is this team holding it together?

After the Liberty game, both players and coaches were liberally throwing around different forms of the word “focus.”

Nygaard put it the most succinctly: “When we’re playing hard and we’re locked in, we’re pretty good.”

It sounds simple, but for a team that has faced distractions related to international politics, locker room disputes, and social media spats, being locked into a game is likely a pretty challenging exercise. As is continually playing hard for 40 minutes per game, particularly for a team that lacks depth, as the currently-constructed Mercury do. 

Despite these challenges, Nygaard’s words are ringing true. In the first two games after the break, Phoenix went 1-1, losing a double-overtime thriller to the Minnesota Lynx and, later, coming back from a double-digit deficit to beat the Washington Mystics. 

Both of these outings saw the Mercury fall behind early but claw their way back to a second-half lead. They also featured a heavy reliance on the production of starting players, with four out of five of them playing over 40 minutes in that contest. In the Washington game, that same group of players accounted for all the team’s points. 

It begs the question: is a sustainable course for the team? SportTrac lists the Mercury as the second-oldest squad in the league with an average age of 28.7, and, unlike the number one team in that spot (Seattle), they are relying on their oldest players for the bulk of their production. 

Skylar Diggins-Smith, at 34 years old, and 40-year-old Diana Taurasi have the second and third most minutes played on this team. While they are performing well, both have styles of play that involve physicality and, thus, carries a risk of injury that has to be concerning for the team. 

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“I wish there were more timeouts so I could give them a breather,” Nygaard said after the Mystics win.

And it’s not just on the offensive end that these players are carrying a heavy load. In the weeks since Charles’ departure, Nygaard has leaned into creating an array of defensive schemes to keep her undersized squad competitive. This has included long stretches of zone that, at times, has proven to be a way to bother opposing teams enough to get them out of their normal flow. In fact, since Tina Charles left the team on June 25, Phoenix has the third-most steals per game in the league.

In postgame comments, the Mystics’ Myisha Hines-Allen admitted to the struggle Phoenix was causing, saying, “We should never have a team have us hold the ball on top of our heads, be scared to penetrate, second guess our shots that we would normally take without hesitation.”

That comment may also be referring to the style of play that Phoenix has become known for, or infamous for, depending on who you’re asking. In what has become a regular scene, there were several instances in games against Minnesota and Washington where Mercury players needed to be separated from their opponents. These events have been the result of hard fouls, words exchanged, or outright unnecessary physical contact, but they seem to be a part of the way this team plays.

Nygaard has even referred to it as an advantage, saying, “When teams mix it up with us, that works in our favor.”

Whatever this new form and style is for the Mercury, it’s keeping them afloat in the playoff race. It may not be the prettiest or cleanest basketball anyone has ever seen, but it makes this team an interesting contender for the playoffs. And interesting is what Phoenix seems to do best. 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA Stats.

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