HEATING UP

Building chemistry, focusing on defense & getting healthy led the Mercury to their 9th consecutive playoff berth

By Cody Cunningham

Chicago Sky’s Kahleah Cooper drove baseline, went for the reverse layup, but was rejected by seven-time WNBA block leader Brittney Griner on Tuesday night. Kia Nurse grabbed the rebound and sprinted up the court for the fast break opportunity.

Brianna Turner, Sophie Cunningham and Skylar Diggins-Smith all ran the floor with her, forcing the defense to choose who to guard. Left open, Nurse hit the breaks at the 3-point line and drilled the shot to give the Phoenix Mercury an 18-point lead with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Hustling back on defense and with a large smile draped across her face, Nurse shot Griner a finger-point gesture as the two shimmied their way into a Chicago timeout.

“When you’re having fun out there and you’re smiling or dancing with one another, laughing and joking around, I think that’s when we’re at our best as a team,” Nurse said. “Just enjoying the sport itself and enjoying the wins.”

Both Los Angeles and New York lost their earlier matchups, securing the Mercury their franchise-record ninth consecutive postseason, but the win over the Sky and the smiles on the sidelines provided an extra cherry on top as the team continues to improve their playoff position.

“It’s great that we were able to go out there and continue to play the way that we did,” Nurse said. “…It’s an opportunity to get better every single time we’re on the court. It gives us more opportunities to continue to gel together. (As well as) figure out things that maybe we still need to work on.”

The Mercury are currently on a remarkable seven-game winning streak, averaging a +15.1 scoring differential, but this road to the playoffs hasn’t been smooth sailing all season. The team entered the Olympic break with a 9-10 record on the fringe of the playoffs, never truly finding their groove in the opening months due to injury, lineup changes and overall chemistry adjustments.

“We knew that we needed to get better and we needed to do it collectively as a team,” head coach Sandy Brondello said. “That’s what we’re doing and we’re buying in and playing together at both ends of the floor.”

Brondello witnessed the confidence of her team begin to grow over the past month with players appearing to have more fun on the court, playing cohesively and sticking together when facing adversity. The Mercury weren’t looking down the road, game planning these seven straight victories, but rather focused on one game at a time, one quarter at a time and one play at a time.

“The telescope vision is we’re trying to win a championship,” Diggins-Smith said. “But the microscope are those practices, getting that treatment, coming in and being a pro and getting shots up before practice, getting shots up after practice, executing the scouting report. It’s really been everything on like the microscopic level, just trying to have that focus and staying present in the moment.”

Diggins-Smith said that tunnel vision has been key in staying locked in on their next opponent and controlling what they can control. One of those areas is their defensive prowess. With the big three of Griner, Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi, the Mercury house arguably the most elite offensive firepower in the league, but the team understands that in order to get the most out of their offensive weapons, getting stops and “painting a masterpiece on the defensive end” is key.

“Defensively, we are more locked in (since the break),” Brondello said. “We’re buying in for what we need to do there. We are trusting each other way more than what we have. We’re rebounding the ball. I think we have more physicality.”

In the first 19 games of the season, opponents were averaging 81.5 points per game. However, in the past seven games, opponents are averaging just 74.3 points per game, including three games under 70 points.

Anchored by Brianna Turner, who Diggins-Smith referred to as the Defensive Player of the Year, the collective effort on the defensive end is assisting in building chemistry on offense. The ability to score in transition and play-make for each other has blown the roof off their scoring potential, notching over 100 points in two of the past three games.

“We are playing really selfless basketball,” Brondello said. “We are moving the ball way more. We’re making it a lot harder for opponents to scout, especially when we have our big three healthy… It all works because they’re doing it together.”

One of the biggest difference makers for the Mercury over this stretch has been the impact of Diggins-Smith, who Brondello said is playing the best basketball she has ever seen her play. Since returning from the Olympics, an experience in which she said “lit a fire underneath her,” Diggins-Smith has been aggressively attacking the paint for impressive and-ones, launching beyond the arc, hustling for rebounds and distributing to her teammates.

Despite exerting so much energy on defense, often guarding the best player on the opposing team, Brondello has noticed Diggins-Smith playing with better poise and credits her for being a big component of the team’s recent success.

“I’ve been really impressed,” Brondello said. “…Overall, she’s just locked in. It’s fun to see. I love coaching Sky. She’s a real competitor. It’s great to see all the hard work she puts in is paying off.

That hard work began in the offseason when she and Taurasi would regularly take the court and train together. Now, Taurasi is the one instilling confidence in Diggins-Smith telling her, “Just be a killer. Just do your thing.”

Taking out the Indiana game where Diggins-Smith scored only two points after leaving the game with an ankle injury in the opening minutes, she’s averaging 22.5 points and 6.7 assists in the other six games since the break, including five consecutive 20-plus points and 5-plus assists games. But she’s not the only one seeing an uptick in offensive production. After only appearing in seven games pre-Olympics, Taurasi has played in all seven since Tokyo, averaging 17.3 points per game as the duo continues to wreak havoc on opposing backcourts.

Still, just in her second year with the team, Diggins-Smith said that the comfort level continues to grow between her and her teammates, assisting in their recent success.

“Spending more time on the court, you develop that familiarity,” Diggins-Smith said. “You get to develop some chemistry on both sides of the floor…. So definitely more of a comfort level knowing the playbook, knowing the vibes of everybody and playing off of people’s games.”

Diggins-Smith was awarded the most recent Western Conference Player of the Week, one week after Griner claimed the same honor.

Griner has continued her dominance in the paint the way she has all year, earning her third Player of the Week award this season while averaging 20.6 points, a career-high 9.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Not only is she notching MVP-esque numbers, but the much-deserving attention she draws offensively opens up the floor for her teammates.

“I think BG’s presence alone on the court just helps us in general,” Shey Peddy said. “She’s a big body and she’s gonna get her rebounds. I don’t think there’s anybody in the league that can stop her one-on-one. So, the double team’s going to help, which opens up everybody else.”

Peddy and the rest of her Mercury teammates are learning how to play with an unstoppable force like Griner and are taking advantage of the mismatch, leading to more players getting involved compared to earlier in the season.

“Whenever any of our players have a good night and the defense is focused on them, that frees up for everybody else to get easy shots,” Peddy said. “It’s easy for them to come off and find an open man. We’re all able to get some touches and get the ball moving. But when somebody is hot like that, you’ve just got a key feed into them. Defense has to adjust. I think right now she’s making every team have to change their defensive game plan. And that’s what you want.”

Brondello noted that during this stretch, it goes beyond just the big three stepping up.

“To be successful you need all those role players as well too,” Brondello said. “Kia Nurse and Sophie Cunningham and Brianna Turner, they’re all coming in and giving us really good minutes. That’s what it’s about. It’s just having overall chemistry. We’ve improved at both ends of the floor.”

Not only is Turner a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, but she’s also seen her offensive numbers soar lately. Turner scored in double figures in five of the past seven games, notching four double-doubles and continuing to play lockdown interior defense. Cunningham has also provided a nice spark off the bench, including 17 points against Atlanta which opened up the current win streak.

Cunningham and the rest of the bench came alive for the Mercury over the past seven games, averaging 16.4 points per game, compared to 13.3 points per game in the previous 19 games. Diggins-Smith recognized how special it is to have multiple players on the team who can take over and the importance of accepting what the defense gives them.

“On offense, we know what we all can bring to the table,” Diggins-Smith said. “We’re all threats. Everybody can score 20 points. It’s a vibe. Who’s hot at the moment? Who has a hot hand? Who’s guarding who? Who are matchups on the opposite end that we feel like we can take advantage of?”

The most recent example was Nurse’s performance against the Sky. She tied a season-high with 21 points on 8-of-13 from the field and 4-of-6 beyond the arc while also recording five rebounds and two assists in the 20-point victory.

“We draw a lot of attention, Diana, myself and Brittney,” Diggins-Smith said. “We have great screeners on our team and (Nurse) is a beneficiary of a lot of swings screens, stagger screens. We make it apparent to try to get her open so she can get her looks. But I thought she was also really aggressive going to the basket and in transition and stepping up her defense… Everybody’s going to have an opportunity to have big nights.”

The mindset of playing aggressively when the team needs you is something the Mercury locker room encourages. This was the case when they were without Griner against New York last week. Kia Vaughn, who played a large role for the Mercury last season in the Wubble, played a season-high 33 minutes in place of the seven-time All-Star. Starting her first game of the year, Vaughn stepped up and nearly notched a double-double with 9 points and 11 rebounds in the 16-point victory.

“We continue to grow together and other players being able to step in,” Brondello said. “BG was out. Kia Vaughn, that’s a luxury. We played with her a lot last year and she could step into that void and find a way to win.”

With Griner back in the lineup, the Mercury are the healthiest they have been all season and their recent play on the court reflects that. The final piece remaining is Bria Hartley who may be nearing her return from a torn ACL that she suffered last season.

“I thought she looked good in practice today,” Brondello said on Hartley. “She’s making good progress on the numbers of where she needs to be. Hopefully these next days push her to that number that clears her and that she’s ready to go… We’re excited about that. It would be great to get her back on the court and get our full team together and continue to build.”

Hartley, who was averaging 14.6 points and 4.5 assists prior to her injury last season, would provide yet another shooter and playmaker into the mix.

When assembling the roster in the offseason, Brondello and general manager Jim Pitman focused on finding players that complement their big three. Now healthy, the Mercury’s potential on paper is being showcased on the court.

“I think we knew (our potential) all season long and there were just a lot of games that we let go or a couple of games that we lost and it was probably more on us than anything,” Nurse said. “Now, we’re playing to our potential. I think there’s even more that we can get to and that’s a scary thought to think about. When you go through the season and you’re continuing to play games, you get more comfortable with one another, things just start to click.”

Not only are the Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Griner all playing at a high level, but they are also providing the young players on the team vocal leaders to learn from when it comes to situational basketball, overcoming in-game adversity and overall mentality.

“I think we’re really fortunate to have people in our veteran positions and within our big three that have been in situations that are tough, that have been in adversity situations, that have been in playoff situations,” Nurse said. “We can lean on them as much as possible. They’re great leaders in the sense that they will give you all of those conversations and pieces of advice to help you out.”

Knowing the talent that the Mercury roster contains, Peddy said the change over the past month has been more of a mental change than physical, as the team develops their defensive mindset and continues to form their chemistry to gel together on the floor.

“We’re learning one another,” Peddy said. “What buttons to push to get somebody going, certain ways to just find players a good open shot.”

But clinching a spot in the playoffs wasn’t the ultimate goal for this team. With championship aspirations, Diggins-Smith said that no weight has been lifted off their shoulders and that the team isn’t satisfied with just making the postseason.

“I think people kind of understand that we underachieved a little bit, if you will,” Diggins-Smith said. “We know that we’re better than what our record shows. So now all that was supposed to be on paper, trying to make it happen on the floor. I don’t think it takes any pressure off. I think it puts more pressure on.”

The Mercury have six remaining regular season games on their schedule, beginning Saturday against the Indiana Fever. While still taking it just one game at a time, the team turns their focus to seeding position, controlling their own destiny and locking in together.

“It’s the nitty gritty part of the season,” Diggins-Smith said. “It always comes down to that last game that determines where you are. It was great that we clinched, but now we’re trying to work to see if we can make the climb.”