Mercury coach Sandy Brondello and guard Diana Taurasi discuss their team’s comeback win over the Atlanta Dream in Phoenix on Wednesday. Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports
Halfway through their makeover season, the Phoenix Mercury are sitting pretty.
They rallied from 12 down late in the third quarter for their fourth straight win Wednesday, 89-84 over Atlanta, and are 11-6 at midseason, a four-game improvement over 2016 (7-10) when they started 0-4 and struggled to make the WNBA playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
If the playoffs began today, the Mercury would be the third seed with a bye in the first round and hosting in the second round, both single elimination. They are on pace for 22 wins – the most since 2014 (a championship season) and second-most since 2009 (championship) – and have a legitimate league MVP candidate in Brittney Griner.
“My goal at the start of the season was to win 20 games,” said Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman. “I thought nine or 10 would be a good number for us at the halfway mark with all the new faces and trying to combine everyone. It’s been a really terrific group. The chemistry they’ve shown is something that doesn’t happen. We’ve been really fortunate they’ve melded together like Sandy (Brondello) and I thought they could. That’s been a big plus.”
Griner leads the WNBA in scoring (22.7 ppg) and can become the first Mercury scoring leader other than Diana Taurasi in a full season since 2003. Taurasi played just eight games in 2012 due to injury, a 7-27 season leading to the selection of 6-9 Griner with the No. 1 draft pick, and sat out to rest in 2015.
With only Taurasi and Griner returning from 2016 and departures of starters Penny Taylor (retirement), DeWanna Bonner (pregnancy) and Candice Dupree (trade), the Mercury seemed more likely to regress than make progress toward a fourth WNBA title this season. But savvy personnel moves by Pitman combined with the international coaching expertise of Brondello created a roster that filled holes and brought needed youth while remaining competitive.
Obtaining All-Star point guard Danielle Robinson for a first-round draft pick and Isabelle Harrison looks even better now than when that trade was made Jan. 31. The 28-year-old has mostly stayed healthy and checked all the boxes – ball handling, transition, defense, assists – to take pressure off Taurasi at age 35.
Forwards Camille Little, obtained in the Dupree trade, and rookie Stephanie Talbot, whom the Mercury drafted in 2014 and waited on while she seasoned in Australia, are difference makers on defense foremost and periodically on offense. Opponents are averaging 79.1 points (before Wednesday), down from 83.3 in 2016, and the Mercury have held teams under 70 points in five games.
“Little’s defense has allowed BG (Griner) to be better as a rebounder because she doesn’t have to be a secondary defender making up for a mistake,” Pitman said. “She’s opened up the middle more too (as a 3-point threat) and allowed BG to just flourish. Griner’s growth has been the most exciting thing of our season so far. She’s playing at an MVP level and I don’t think there is a limit to where she can go at this point.”
Pitman added that Griner’s strength improvement has “made her more athletic. She feels really good about herself, and it shows on the court. I think there’s a basketball maturity” that began to show after the 2016 Olympics and is now coming into full bloom.
Australians Leilani Mitchell and Cayla George are back for their second stint with the Mercury under Brondello, now Australian National team coach. Emma Cannon and Yvonne Turner are finally getting their chance in the WNBA in large part because of their overseas play in Russia and Hungary, witnessed in person by Brondello, assistant coach of the Russian team that features Griner and Taurasi.
“When we were looking at players, it was a really important thing that they had the right personalities for us,” Pitman said. “We knew what we had in Taurasi and Griner and we needed to make sure the pieces we brought in around them were fits. You never know for sure, but we’ve been very fortunate so far the people we’ve brought in have been good people and very complementary to what we had.”
The Mercury bolstered their bench scoring June 28 by acquiring veteran guard Monique Currie in a trade with San Antonio. They also added 6-6 Angel Robinson, whose rights were acquired in a trade last summer, who already has made a difference in rebounding and providing depth and foul protection for Griner.
With nine games in the second half against Minnesota (up next Friday and Sunday), Los Angeles, Connecticut and Washington – all double-digit win teams – the Mercury are far from assured of staying among the league’s top four. Ten of their remaining 17 are on the road, including seven of nine in August.
But even a 9-8 second half would produce a 20-win season, up from 16-18 last year. That bodes well at least for the rest of Taurasi’s career, which could extend through the 2020 season if she pursues a fifth Olympic appearance.
Comeback for fourth straight win
Atlanta used a 10-point run to lead 65-53 with 4:02 left in the third quarter at Talking Stick Resort Arena, but the Mercury cut that deficit in half by the end of the period and went on to their fourth straight win on Wednesday.
“We were really flat tonight, didn’t really have an energy, we played slow,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “Down the stretch, we went with the players that played all 10 minutes but I thought that’s what we needed to win and they brought the appropriate energy. We had to grind it out.”
Leilani Mitchell and Yvonne Turner off the bench teamed with Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and Camille Little in the fourth to put away the Dream (8-9), who had won two straight and three of their last four.
Mitchell had six of her 13 points, three assists and a steal in the fourth in one of her best games of the season.
“We knew we weren’t playing to our potential,” Mitchell said. “We were just kind of coasting so we talked amongst ourselves especially at halftime that we need to get back to our game, which is getting stops defensively, getting out and running and playing our pace. We did a better job of that in the second half.”
From a halftime tie at 46, Atlanta went up 55-48. The Mercury got back within two before the Dream’s 10-0 run that put Phoenix’s win streak in jeopardy.
Griner, who threw down her 10th career regular season dunk and second this season in the second quarter, finished with 28 points. Taurasi had 20 including a pair of 3-pointers to help ice a game that was tied at 80 at 2:08.
Little, in one of her best Mercury games, had nine points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
Taurasi selected as West starter for All-Star Game
Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi will start for the Western Conference in the WNBA All-Star Game, July 22 in Seattle.
Taurasi will be starting in her eighth All-Star Game. She has never missed the midseason event during her 13-year career, which is not held during Olympic and World Championships seasons. Taurasi sat out the 2015 season when there was an All-Star Game.
The All-Star starters were announced Tuesday. Taurasi and Seattle’s Sue Bird are West guards with Minnesota’s Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles and Los Angeles’ Candace Parker in the front court.
Taurasi became the WNBA career 3-point leader June 1 and the league’s career scoring leader June 18. She is seventh in scoring this season, averaging 18.1 points.
East starters are Washington’s Elena Delle Donne, New York’s Tina Charles and Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones in the front court and Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes and Connecticut’s Jasmine Thomas at guard.
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Fan voting counted for 50 percent in determining starters with current players and a media panel voting counting 25 percent each. Fans cast 604,680 votes, more than double than in 2015 (280,670) when the last All-Star Game was held.
In media and player voting, Taurasi was No. 1 among West guards and second in fan voting at the position.
Moore led in overall fan voting with 32,868 votes followed by Delle Donne (31,414), Parker (29,133), Fowles (24,904) and Bird (24,841). Fan voting was the tiebreaker in a position group and came into play with Parker winning the tiebreaker over Sparks’ teammate Nneka Ogwumike.
Reserves will be selected by league coaches and announced July 18. Mercury center Brittney Griner, who leads the league in scoring (22.4 ppg) and is in contention for Most Valuable Player, is a virtual lock for her fourth All-Star appearance. Griner was fifth in West’s front court weighted All-Star voting and second in the media and player voting behind Fowles (sixth among fans).
MOORE: Now that Taurasi has record, maybe opponents will relax
All-Star coaches are Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve (West) and New York’s Bill Laimbeer (East) based on 2016 best regular-season record.
Atlanta Dream at Phoenix Mercury
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena.
TV: Fox Sports Arizona.
Mercury: The Mercury (10-6) are on a season-high, three-game win streak, beating Washington, San Antonio and New York last week. They are facing Atlanta for the first time and were 2-1 against the Dream last year. Phoenix’s last four-game regular season win streak was in 2015 when it won five straight from July 28-Aug. 7. The Mercury also had a six-game win streak in 2015 but did not win more than three straight (twice) in 2016.
Dream: The Dream (8-8) have won three of their past four games including 98-78 over Dallas on Sunday. All-Star G Tiffany Hayes leads in scoring at 16.6 ppg followed by G Layshia Clarendon (11.1), F Bria Holmes (10.9) and C-F Elizabeth Williams (10.1). F Sancho Lyttle and Williams are the rebounding leaders. Rookie G Brittney Sykes (first-round draft pick, No. 7 overall) is contributing with 9.7 ppg while averaging 18.9 minutes.