Mercury star Diana Taurasi comments on Kevin Durant’s decision to sign with the Warriors and discusses how LeBron James continues to stand above the rest at Mercury practice on Tuesday. Rob Schumacher/azcentral sports
Mercury regaining elite defensive form
The Sandy Brondello coaching era started the way she imagined, with the Phoenix Mercury massively improving on defense and winning the 2014 WNBA title.
The defense eroded some in 2015, dipping from second in points allowed to fourth, then last season took a bigger fall to eighth, giving up 83.3 points per game.
But now the D is back with a retooled roster that leads the league in points allowed (67.2), opponent field-goal (37.0) and 3-point (19.2) percentage and is tied for third in forced turnovers (16.2).
Through five games, Mercury opponents have scored 20-plus points in only three of 20 quarters, opposed to 16 quarters over the same period in 2016.
“Number 1, we have athletic players; that helps,” Brondello said. “We have intelligent players; that helps to put everything in. In the end, it’s just people that want to buy in and do what’s best for the team. They’re committing to what we’re asking them to do.”
In 6-9 Brittney Griner, the Mercury have a two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year who at 26 is coming into her prime. What’s dramatically changed is their perimeter defense, with additions of Danielle Robinson, Stephanie Talbot and others.
Starting point guard Robinson made the WNBA All-Defensive Team from 2012-14 while with San Antonio. The 6-2 Talbot is a WNBA rookie but at 22 already has played professionally since for six years in her native Australia and Poland and was a 2016 Olympian.
“We can be way more aggressive than we were last year purely because we have more athletic players,” Brondello said. “It allows us to be real creative with how we want to defend each individual and guarding people differently. That’s something we weren’t able to do a hell of a lot last year because the personnel driven that way.”
In addition to her defense, Talbot is second among WNBA rookies with 4.6 rebounds per game. She and Camille Little are double teaming effectively on the perimeter while Robinson and Leilani Mitchell are stopping guards from getting to the basket like they did seemingly at will much of last season.
“We have a lot of depth on our perimeter,” Talbot said. “We can get after it, we can hustle and we can reset and get new players in. Camille and Emma (Cannon) are great at trapping the guards coming off on balls and making them hesitate. That’s helpful knowing they’re going to be there or knowing that BG (Griner) is there with her hand up. We don’t have to foul, we can just let BG come across and block it. She’s always going to be there.”
Griner has not fouled out and largely remained out of foul trouble this early season, averaging 31 minutes. That gives Brondello the ability to play backup Cayla George when she chooses instead of out of necessity, helping to turn the bench into a force like in last week’s 63-point contribution (out of 107 total) against Dallas.
“BG became real disciplined from the start of this year,” said Brondello, referring back to the 2017 part of Griner’s Russian season. “Her maturity on that side of the ball, knowing she can impact shots without fouling and having a little bit more poise if they’re trying to make her go crazy certainly helps.
“We’re able to defend better 1-on-1 on the perimeter, so she doesn’t have to over-help. That’s when we gave up offensive rebounds because no one else would block out. Now we have so much more team defense.”
Phoenix Mercury at Chicago Sky
When: 5 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Allstate Arena, Rosemont, Ill.
Mercury: Diana Taurasi needs one more 3-pointer to become the WNBA career leader, breaking a tie with Katie Smith at 906. She is 36 points away from surpassing Tamika Catchings as the league’s No. 2 career scorer. Mercury rookie Sophie Brunner is from nearby Freeport, Ill., with family and friends turning out in force to support her during her Arizona State career. Brunner has played briefly in two games. Phoenix remains on the road for games against New York on Sunday and Indiana on June 7.
Sky: Chicago (1-5) is on a three-game losing streak including a 97-79 loss to Connecticut on Sunday. The Sky’s only win was 75-71 over Atlanta on May 21. Chicago is adjusting to life without Elena Delle Donne, traded to Washington for Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper and the No. 2 overall draft pick. The Sky used the pick on South Carolina 6-4 center Alaina Coates, who is out with an ankle injury suffered during the SEC Tournament before the Gamecocks went on their NCAA title run. F Tamera Young is averaging 15.2 points and G Cappie Pondexter 14.7 points/8.3 assists.
Taurasi set to break 3-point mark
Taurasi returned from a one-game suspension last Saturday to score a season-high 18 points. In the third quarter, she tied Katie Smith for the WNBA career 3-point lead.
“I always talk about Katie being one of my biggest heroes growing up,” Taurasi said. “Her work ethic, got to share the court with her at the Olympics. To be tied with her right now is kind of cool. I feel like if we could just end it there and we’ll both be on top, we’d both be pretty happy with that.”
Taurasi is 127 points away from becoming the WNBA career-scoring leader.
WNBA career 3-point leaders
1. Diana Taurasi 906
1. Katie Smith 906
3. Becky Hammon 829
4. Tina Thompson 748
5. Sue Bird 740