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.
Thanks to the Mercury’s defensive issues, and their offense rather grinding to a halt when Taurasi and Griner went to the bench, Washington held a 31-22 lead at the end of the first period. Phoenix had more problems in the second when Griner picked up her second and third fouls in quick succession – the first on a moving screen that was mostly Taurasi’s fault, the second on a tiny pump-fake from Langhorne followed by a drive. Oh how the Mercury struggled with ball-fakes last night. It was embarrassing the number of times Langhorne or Currie or Snow threw a small fake that drew Dupree or Griner into jumping in the air, where they could watch the opposing player drive right by them or draw the obvious foul. Fortunately for the Mercury and their fans, the offense was still effective, and they trailed only 50-43 at halftime.
Amazingly enough, the Mercury offense even has room to improve. Taurasi’s playing out of her mind lately, shooting the lights out from the perimeter, drawing contact to get to the line, and finding her teammates with pinpoint passes. Dupree’s been pretty smooth as well, both finishing at the rim and completing pick-and-pops with Taurasi via her mid-range jumper. Then there are the obvious talents of Griner inside. But they’re still running sets that appear to have DeWanna Bonner 25-foot three-pointers as intentionally possible outcomes. Plus she’s still forcing some up under pressure even when they don’t look designed. Bonner’s done a slightly better job of attacking the rim in recent games, and shooting threes when you’re wide open off rotation or a Griner kick-out is fine – but she’s just not a good enough shooter out there to keep mindlessly flinging them up.
Washington closed the first half with an easy Langhorne finish after Bonner and Dupree miscommunicated in trying to defend a pick-and-roll – one of at least three times on the night that those two were left looking at each other after a Washington score, bemused looks on their faces while they tried to figure out what went wrong. The second half began with a wide open Langhorne layup off a simple Latta backscreen. You have to credit Thibault and the Mystics for knowing what would work and attacking the holes all night, even if they couldn’t find a way to stop the Mercury on the other end.
Even with their defensive failings and without much offensive impact from Griner, the Mercury kept coming. Taurasi was picking Washington’s defense apart with her ability to rise up and hit shots when given an inch of space, or to make the right pass to open teammates when the defense overcompensated to stop her. It took a swooping Ajavon drive – past a static Bonner – and a 30-foot heave from Ajavon at the third quarter buzzer to keep Washington four points ahead going into the final period.
After trailing for virtually the entire game, Phoenix started to flip the script in the fourth. Both teams were trying to steal some rest for their stars in the opening minutes of the period, but it paid off for the Mercury much more effectively. Without Latta, Langhorne or Currie, the Mystics struggled to score, while Phoenix’s ‘survival’ lineup with Taurasi, Griner and Bonner on the bench actually gained ground. As we saw in the recent NBA playoffs, where Indiana lost out to Miami before the Finals largely because they couldn’t cope when their bench had to play, it’s important that your backup lineups can maintain the gap. If they can somehow gain ground, it’s huge.
So it was Phoenix who held narrow leads for much of the final period, until a Latta bomb to beat the shot clock dropped in for an 89-88 Washington lead with barely two minutes remaining. From there, Taurasi did a solid job drawing fouls, and also made a gorgeous baseline fadeaway jumper to answer a bucket from Kia Vaughn. The Mystics created good looks, but Latta missed a straightforward layup, a wide open jumper and a runner in the space of 30 seconds – which hurt. It’s hard to tell whether those looks were the result of Phoenix finally deciding that someone other than Langhorne would have to beat them, or just a hole opening up in a different area. If it was intentional, it worked – even if a lot of luck was involved.
The Mystics were still just about within range, and produced a moment of controversy that arguably decided the game. Bonner was clutch from the free throw line once Washington had to start fouling to stop the clock, but another wide open Langhorne layup (Dupree comprehensively beaten by a fake handoff this time) and a tough three from Ajavon gave them a chance. Inbounding from under their own basket with 8.6 seconds left (they’d run out of timeouts), trailing 99-96, Ajavon almost lost control of the ball. But she corralled it, and stepped between Bonner and Dupree just over halfcourt. Whistles blew for a foul as she let fly from 35 feet, and everyone watched in stunned disbelief as the ball went straight through the hoop. Checking whether a player had begun her shooting motion isn’t something the officials are allowed to review on replay, but those of us with that luxury can tell you that she’d definitely gathered the ball and begun her heave before the whistle can be heard. Bonner was even still fouling her as she let go. But the question is when they felt the initial foul was committed, and the referees decided that it was before the gather – so the bucket didn’t count. It was a very harsh call on Washington and Ajavon, but also a tough decision to make in real-time. Referees always tend to lean towards not counting those shots, and that was again the choice here. So the Mystics still trailed by three, and Ajavon went to the line for only two shots with four seconds left.
She hit the first and missed the second on purpose, hoping for an offensive rebound, but Bonner stepped in front of her to grab the board. When Bonner made yet another pair at the line it was finally over, with the Mercury clinging on for a 101-97 victory.
You can’t ask a great deal more from the Mystics. Langhorne finished a ridiculous 12-13 from the field for 27 points, with Currie, Ajavon and Latta in supporting roles. Maybe you’d like to shoot a little better from the perimeter, or to offer fewer lanes for the Mercury offense to attack, but it’s hard to stop the Phoenix juggernaut. They kept Griner quiet, and exploited the flaws in the Mercury’s defense, and one little call in the final seconds could’ve turned the result the other way. It’s almost a shame that these teams won’t see each other again for the rest of the year, bar an unlikely Finals matchup.
This was an old-fashioned Mercury game. They knifed through the Washington defense with precision, with Taurasi and Dupree the primary architects. They played some baffling, indecipherable defense, that often seemed to confuse themselves as much as viewers trying to work out what their plan was. But they came out on top anyway. If they can ever work out how to put Griner at the heart of a dominant, coherent defense, the rest of the league better watch out. Maybe it’ll be more fun if they just remain petrifying yet flawed.
Spain destroyed Serbia in the first EuroBasket Women 2013 semi-final, 88-69, and will face hosts France in the final after they beat Turkey 57-49. The six European qualifiers for the World Championships in Turkey next year are those four semi-finalists, plus Belarus and the Czech Republic.
Friday June 28th (today):
Tulsa @ Indiana, 7pm ET. This one’s a pick-’em (neither team is favoured), which shows how far our reigning champs have fallen. Just to illustrate it further, I’m taking Tulsa.
Washington @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. Atlanta -10.5 is a big line with Sancho Lyttle still in Europe, but after fighting with Phoenix last night the Mystics may well be tired. I’ll take the Dream to cover that.
Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET. The bookies still believe in Minnesota, who are 6.5-point favourites despite being blown out by LA 87-59 when these teams met a week ago. I like the Lynx to come out with revenge on their minds and cover.
New York @ Seattle, 10pm ET. With no useful information emerging on the health of Plenette Pierson, you have to like Seattle -4.5. I’d probably have taken the Storm anyway.
Saturday June 29th (tomorrow):
Phoenix @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Los Angeles @ Chicago, 8pm ET