Only one matchup in the WNBA last night, and it ended up being more like half-a-matchup. The Phoenix Mercury travelled to Atlanta without their leader and star, Diana Taurasi, due to her hip flexor injury. Already without their other best player, Penny Taylor, due to her ACL tear prior to the season, the Mercury are going to be scrambling to survive for as long as Taurasi is out. This was their first test since it was decided that she’d be unavailable ‘indefinitely’.
Atlanta have had some struggles of their own to start the season. A comprehensive win over New York was sandwiched between two heavy defeats to Indiana, which highlighted how much they’re going to miss Erika de Souza while she prepares for the Olympics with Brazil. An opportunity to open up their running game against the short-handed, defense-allergic Mercury seemed like the perfect opportunity to improve their confidence – and their record.
Phoenix promoted Charde Houston into the starting lineup to replace Taurasi, which makes either Houston or DeWanna Bonner the nominal shooting guard. It’s hard to tell which way round they are, and it doesn’t make much difference in Phoenix’s system. Atlanta rolled out the same starters that had opened their previous two games.
The opening possessions were a mess, with sloppy passing and multiple breakdowns for Phoenix, while Atlanta were firing up a host of bricks from outside. Atlanta eventually got something going when the likes of Angel McCoughtry, Sancho Lyttle and Lindsey Harding attacked a little more rather than firing up endless jumpshots, but Candice Dupree’s smooth offensive game kept the Mercury hanging around.
The opening substitution for the Mercury highlighted how ridiculous their current roster balance is. Starting center Nakia Sanford was replaced by guard Alexis Hornbuckle less than two and a half minutes into the game. All while the Dream still had their starting posts on the floor, of course, and Sanford only had one foul. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines really doesn’t want to play these big, space-filling centers. He’d be more than happy with Bonner/Dupree as his frontcourt for long stretches, despite their defensive inadequacies. So why are there three centers on this nine-woman squad? It makes no sense to me, especially as they must’ve had an idea about the state of Taurasi’s injury when they re-signed Krystal Thomas to join Sanford and rookie Avery Warley as post options. Right now, there are three guards on this entire roster, one of them a rookie point guard (Samantha Prahalis), one an undersized scorer who Gaines barely trusts (Alexis Gray-Lawson), and one a ‘defensive specialist’ with a 36% career shooting average (Hornbuckle). That’s a backcourt rotation?
Hornbuckle picked up three fouls in barely five minutes of first-quarter action, just to make things worse. In the second period, the Dream gained some steam and some confidence, sped up their game and started making some shots. The Mercury couldn’t hit anything, couldn’t rebound to save their lives, couldn’t ignite their typical running game, and started digging a deep, deep hole. Even with McCoughtry on the sidelines having a left-leg injury examined, the Dream’s role players and backups were grabbing every loose ball and pulling away with ease. Phoenix scored three points in the opening six minutes of the second quarter, and by the time a Warley layup finally dragged them off their total of 19, Atlanta had reached 37.
It’s not like the Mercury were being outplayed by a highly-regarded bench, either. Phoenix may be down to nine players, but the Dream have looked like one of the shallowest teams in the WNBA so far this year. And they were battering the Mercury. Tiffany Hayes, Aneika Henry, Cathrine Kraayeveld, even little point guard Ketia Swanier – they all played their part in the Dream run that essentially killed this game off by halftime. Armintie Price was the only Atlanta starter who played heavy minutes while the game went away from Phoenix.
By the break it was 43-27 Atlanta, and the Mercury looked like a defeated team. We’ve already seen a couple of remarkable comebacks this week – Tulsa recovered to make it a fight in LA, Washington somehow came back from 24 down against Minnesota to force a last-possession contest – but another one seemed unlikely. The Dream were playing with greater speed, far better aggression, and the Mercury couldn’t hit enough shots to keep up. 0-11 from three-point range in the first half, Phoenix were down 27-16 on the glass and had barely visited the free throw line. Atlanta hadn’t even fed their post players much to take advantage of their edge in size and strength down low, but all their offensive rebounds meant it had hardly mattered. McCoughtry had also played less than 10 minutes due to her injury.
It got even worse before it got any better for Phoenix in the second half. McCoughtry was fit to return, and Sancho Lyttle’s length and quickness started to cause more problems for the Mercury. Steals and breakaways, mostly created by Lyttle, pushed the Dream’s advantage beyond 20 and any visions of a comeback quickly faded away. Whether it was due to the emotional hit they took upon hearing Taurasi was going to be out for a while, or simply a lack of remaining talent, this one was over.
The Mercury did at least keep going, and with the benches cleared they got as close as 12 in the final stages, but it was never going to be enough. Atlanta ran out 81-65 winners, and the 16-point margin probably flattered Phoenix.
It was an encouraging win for Atlanta, even against a short-handed opponent. Their bench has looked so poor in the two games against Indiana, and in this one they came out and played a central part in taking over the game. In fact, Atlanta ended up so balanced on the night that Kraayeveld and Lyttle tied as their top-scorers with only 12 points each – they didn’t need any of their top players to dominate in order to ease to victory. The Dream won’t require such an impressive swing from their backups every night, but they do need them to be able to come in and compete. The starters have to be able to grab some rest without worrying that they’ll be coming back in to rescue the situation that the reserves have left them with. Hayes, Henry, Kraayeveld and Swanier provided some hope with this performance.
Courtney Paris barely played even in this blowout though, and you feel the Dream may be running out of patience with her. It might be time to try a different fifth-post.
It was ugly for Phoenix. They made the scoreline look mildly respectable late on, but this was an ass-kicking. They got killed on the boards, with Bonner and Dupree looking lightweight and easily manhandled for much of the night, while Sanford, Warley and Thomas weren’t much more effective when Gaines gave them a try. Warley does look like she could be something of a find though, considering she’s an undrafted rookie who doesn’t look out of place. On the perimeter, Prahalis is actually doing okay for a rookie point guard, especially considering the situation she’s been thrust into early in her pro career. She’s not penetrating that much, and still looks a little flimsy against the size and strength of WNBA players, but she’s got the skill level to fit in. It just might take a while for a fully-rounded game to appear. Hornbuckle was awful, and is yet to remotely fit in on this team. Gray-Lawson at least offered some penetration when the Mercury became desperately stagnant in the middle of the game.
If Taurasi’s going to be out for any length of time, there’ll be struggles ahead. They’ve still got some scorers, but that backcourt is desperately weak and the interior defense isn’t going to cover for anyone. Their only saving grace – assuming they want to contend for the playoffs, rather than disintegrate for a chance at Griner or Delle Donne – is that Tulsa, Seattle and San Antonio are in the West as well (and even LA have their problems, despite the 4-1 record). You might have to be really bad to avoid staying in playoff contention in the West this year.
Notes and Mini-Previews for Tonight
Los Angeles’s Nneka Ogwumike won May’s Rookie of the Month award. Well duh.
Forgot to mention it earlier in the week, but Indiana’s Tamika Catchings and LA’s Candace Parker won the first Player of the Week awards in their respective conferences. Both were worthy winners, although Connecticut’s Tina Charles and Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus both had strong claims as well.
There are four games coming up tonight, and we kick off with a doozy, as Minnesota visit Connecticut. Both teams are currently undefeated, and it’ll be a real test for the reigning champs to visit the Mohegan Sun off the back of nearly throwing away the game in Washington on Wednesday. Cheryl Reeve won’t have been happy with that collapse. Meanwhile, the Sun have had all week to rest and prepare, and are traditionally very strong on their own floor. In fact, they beat the Lynx by nearly 30 in their only trip to Connecticut last year. This one could be fascinating, and there’s always that possibility that it could be a very early WNBA Finals preview.
Next up, Phoenix play the second half of a back-to-back – still without Taurasi – by moving on to San Antonio. The Silver Stars may have some issues with their interior rotation, but a tired and undermanned Mercury team could be the perfect panacea. They can throw so many quick, attacking perimeter players at Phoenix that it could be hard for the Mercury to hold on.
Over in the East, Washington travel to Chicago to face the Sky. The Mystics should’ve been encouraged by their storming comeback against the Lynx, but Chicago will still be heavy favourites. Epiphanny Prince’s strong start to the season has offered a perimeter balance to Sylvia Fowles and the Sky have shown signs that the franchise may finally have turned the corner. Both these teams have had horrible problems with turnovers in the past, so it could come down to who takes better care of the ball.
Finally, Tulsa go to Seattle in the battle of the 0-fers. With the Key Arena crowd behind them and the Shock for opposition, the Storm will be looking to play far, far better than we’ve seen so far against LA and Minnesota. Turnover issues, stagnant offense, and a general lack of mobility and fluidity has left Seattle looking very poor to begin the season. With the personnel they have, they shouldn’t be this bad. The Shock have been impressively competitive in their early games, falling one basket short of at least forcing overtime in each of their last three contests. Forcing 107 turnovers in their first four games, Gary Kloppenburg has his team causing all kinds of havoc with their high-energy defense. If Seattle aren’t careful, their problems holding on to the ball could easily resurface, and a painful upset could be the result.
Tonight (Friday June 1st):
Minnesota @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Phoenix @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Washington @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET
Tulsa @ Seattle, 10pm ET
Tomorrow (Saturday June 2nd):
New York @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Chicago @ Atlanta, 7pm ET