The Phoenix Mercury hit the midway mark of their season Saturday still without a clear indication of their direction.
Their 8-8 record is mediocre, but they were without WNBA career scoring leader Diana Taurasi for all but one of those games. They currently hold the eighth and final playoff position but through Thursday stood 1.5 games out of third place and three behind league-leading Las Vegas (11-5).
Center Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner are the top two scorers in the WNBA, but the team is 10th in scoring (73.1 ppg) and last in rebounding.
Guards Leilani Mitchell and Yvonne Turner have missed games — Mitchell because she was cut then re-signed, Turner for Eurobasket — and guard/forward Essence Carson has struggled at times to find a role in her first Mercury season.
The mixed signals are everywhere, exasperated by uncertainty about when Taurasi will return for good from back surgery and the loss of power forward Sancho Lyttle for up to six weeks with a knee injury.
“There’s a few games we probably should have won, maybe two more,” coach Sandy Brondello said Friday. “We’re growing as a team, but there are areas we can control (better) like rebounding and we’re not shooting as well as we can. We’re still a work in progress. We’ve just got to get some consistency now and get some wins.
“We’re right in the mix. I think we can beat anyone so it’s really about how we play on that day.”
The Mercury have wins over Las Vegas, Washington, Los Angeles and defending champion Seattle but also losses to New York and Dallas, teams currently below the playoff cut line. They can play well enough to dominate the Mystics 91-68 on the road, then lose the next two to Connecticut and Minnesota.
Part of that roller coaster is the quality of a league that has stood pat with 12 teams since 2010, each getting incrementally better as more pro-ready talent annually arrives.
“There’s a lot of parity,” said Brondello, making it even dicier to finish fifth-eighth and expect to win elimination games in the first and second rounds of the playoffs like the Mercury managed to do from 2016-18.
A minimum goal for the second half of the season is to climb to at least fourth place, earning a first-round playoff bye. That won’t be easy but is possible especially if Taurasi is ready to play soon after the All-Star break and the Big Two again become the Big Three.
“We’re a better team when we have more than two scorers and usually that’s when we win,” Brondello said. “BG (Griner) and DB (Bonner) have been great for us, but others needs to step up. We have to make sure we’re staying confident and keep moving the ball offensively. We’ve been aggressive, sometimes I think we settle too much for jumpers when we should be attacking. You don’t want to just live and die by the outside shots.
“Defensively we’re doing pretty good. We’ve been pretty consistent at that. It’s just the rebounding, and that’s just focusing.”
The Mercury have held their opponent under 70 points in seven games compared to just nine times with 70 or less in the previous two seasons. Their overall opponent scoring average is 73.7, second lowest in the WNBA, but their scoring offense has taken a 15 percent dip from 85.8 pg in 2018.
Taurasi could be the answer if she can get back to anywhere near her 2018 form (20.7 ppg, 5.3 assists pg), but whether that is possible at 37 coming off surgery April 24 and not having played regularly since September is an unknown.
“This is what we have,” Brondello said of her 10 healthy players. “It’s going to be a bonus when they (Taurasi, Lyttle) come back and get them integrated. We’re still very capable of winning. We have to make sure we’re staying with this group and not looking forward more than the next game.
“We want Diana to come back when she’s ready. It was a little too early for her (playing for 15 minutes on July 12). We need to get her at full strength because that’s when she’s going to really help us.”
Even at their current .500, the Mercury still maintain championship aspirations with a veteran roster that is only beginning to get help from three rookies. But it’s a fine line between reaching the playoff semifinals for a seventh straight season and suffering a first-round exit with many twists ahead in August (11 games) and September.
“We’re getting better,” Brondello said. “At the start of the year, we had a lot of new players, we had our leader (Taurasi) out. We had people who had all offseason off trying to find their game back and get them with chemistry. We’re getting there (6-3 in their last nine games). We just have to keep fighting.”
Mercury at midseason
2013: 9-8/19-15 finish
2019: 8-8 (one game left in first half)/TBD
Note: From 2013-18, the Mercury reached the WNBA playoffs final four.
Mercury at Dallas Wings, 5 p.m. Saturday, College Park Center, Arlington, Texas, FSAZ Plus — This is the second meeting in four days following the Mercury’s 69-64 win Wednesday. The Mercury (8-8) have been off since while the Wings (5-13) lost by the same 69-64 margin Thursday at Los Angeles.
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