The opening days of the 2013 Phoenix Mercury season were a trip into WNBA Bizarro Land. Who were this passionless group, trying to play halfcourt basketball at a pedestrian pace? After three losses and an admittance from head coach Corey Gaines that he’d been an idiot – plus a minor injury to their rookie phenom that might’ve been a blessing in disguise – the Mercury have been rediscovering their identity ever since. With the return to high-paced, offense-focussed basketball they’ve found a lot more success, led by the renewed energy of superstar Diana Taurasi, who isn’t quite ready to hand this team over to Brittney Griner just yet. Last night’s sole WNBA game was the epitome of Mercury basketball – high energy, a scoreline that reached triple-digits, and some of the most pathetic and discombobulated defense you’re ever likely to see on a WNBA floor.
Of course, there was another team involved as well. The Washington Mystics came in at 4-4 after an unexpectedly bright start to the season, dampened a little by a three-game losing streak on their recent road trip. In the short time he’s been in charge, new head coach Mike Thibault has already generated an entirely different atmosphere around this franchise. It feels like they’re already moving in the right direction, even though the core group still features several players that were present under the previous regime. Thibault’s Connecticut Sun teams were 5-1 against Gaines’s Mercury over the last three years, so he clearly knows how to exploit Phoenix’s weaknesses, and the Mystics had already given them a scare last week when these teams faced off back in Arizona. They weren’t going to be afraid of the Mercury’s star names or the hype they’ve generated this year.
As in their last game against Los Angeles, Thibault went with veterans Michelle Snow and Matee Ajavon in the starting lineup, presenting Phoenix with a slightly different look from the one they faced the previous week. The backcourt of Ivory Latta and Tayler Hill looked really small against the Mercury, who currently start games with 6’0” Diana Taurasi as their shortest player. Ajavon is technically listed at two inches shorter than Hill, but her constant attacking mentality put someone on the floor from the start who would go at the Mercury. It made them seem less dwarfed by Phoenix’s starting lineup.
The first real moment of intrigue in the game was less than three minutes in, when Taurasi was called for her fifth technical foul of the season. She was fouled by Ajavon while trying to get around a pick, and then caught Ajavon in the face/neck area while trying to brush her off with her off-arm. On its individual merits, it was a desperately soft call. But it’s something Taurasi does constantly whenever a defender is making any kind of contact with her, and she virtually never gets called for it. So maybe it was a little bit of karmic retribution that for once the action drew a penalty. Remember, a player’s 7th technical foul in a season (and 9th, 11th, 13th etc.) leads to a one-game suspension, so she’s already getting close. Although we have no idea how many of the five so far have subsequently been rescinded by the league.
So let’s talk about the Mercury’s defense. They have some problems on an individual level – Candice Dupree was abused by Crystal Langhorne for most of the night, Griner still isn’t entirely comfortable defending the pick-and-roll, and DeWanna Bonner seems to be getting picked off incredibly easily this season. But it’s the team-level elements that continue to be dismaying. They seem to change what they’re doing on a game-to-game basis, and once one tack proves to be a disaster, they switch everything up in the middle of the game and confuse themselves even further. They started this game with a noticeable aversion to switching on the defensive end, which defeats much of the purpose of having such a big lineup on the floor. One of the major advantages of a group like that should be that you can switch whenever necessary without creating particularly dangerous mismatches. But Washington kept running a play where a wing – usually Monique Currie with Bonner trying to chase her – would curl along the baseline around a staggered screen from both Mystics bigs. Bonner would get horribly caught on the picks, and no one else would bother to move out onto Currie, who’d be left wide open from 15 feet to shoot, drive, or pick her nose for five minutes while waiting for a defender to arrive. Later in the game, the Mercury started trying to trap the ballhandler on pick-and-rolls, which didn’t remotely work either because they’re not very good at it, and left the roller wide open because their rotations couldn’t cover the gaps left behind. It was terrible.