LONG BEACH, Calif. – The Mercury’s 13-month losing streak to the Los Angeles Sparks now threatens their presence in the WNBA playoffs.
Candace Parker amassed 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to lead the Sparks’ 86-72 victory that gave them a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five semifinals Thursday night at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid.
The Mercury – who have lost six straight contests to the Sparks since Aug. 28, 2016 –must win Sunday at Talking Stick Resort Arena to avoid elimination.
Diana Taurasi recovered from the worst offensive performance of her playoff career to score 21 points. Taurasi had just six points in Tuesday night’s 79-66 loss. Brittney Griner added 16 points, and Leilani Mitchell had 15 points.
MORE: WNBA playoff bracket
But the Mercury committed 18 turnovers that the Sparks converted into 28 points, succumbed to three major offensive droughts and allowed Los Angeles to outscore them inside 50-36.
Taurasi’s driving layup with 5:21 left in the first quarter gave the Mercury a 15-13 lead, but the visitors would not score another basket for the next 4:59. Meanwhile, Parker scored seven points in 1:28 to propel a 9-1 blitz that put the Sparks ahead 22-16.
With five minutes left in the second quarter, the Mercury assumed a 31-30 lead when Mitchell converted her own steal into a driving layup. However, the visitors scored only four more points in the half, while the Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike had six points during a 13-4 surge that gave the hosts a 43-35 halftime advantage.
Los Angeles expanded the margin to 14 points with 1:31 remaining in the third quarter before the Mercury narrowed their deficit to 61-57 on Danielle Robinson’s jumper with 46 seconds gone in the final period. Ogwumike’s 3-point shot and Alana Beard’s driving bank shot increased the hosts’ lead to 66-57.
But after Taurasi’s 3-point basket drew the Mercury within 68-62, the visitors scored only two points in the next 3:22, as the Sparks built a 77-64 lead with 4:04 to play.
Ogwumike finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. Teammate Odyssey Sims contributed 21 points and Chelsea Gray scored 15 points.
Phoenix Mercury at Los Angeles Sparks
When: 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Where: Walter Pyramid, Long Beach, Calif.
Mercury: The Mercury were in position at halftime, tied 42-42, to pull off their first win this season over Los Angeles in Game 1 of a best-of-5 WNBA semifinal series. But they managed just 24 points in the second half and G Diana Taurasi finished with a playoff career low six points on 2-of-10 shooting in a 79-66 loss. Taurasi needs to be more of a factor in Game 2 although she is working against Alana Beard, WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. “Fresher legs (for Taurasi) would help,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “We have to help her get open and get a little more separation for easier looks.” Phoenix has lost its last five games vs. the Sparks, four this season. Mercury turnovers were back up to 16 in Game 1, five by C Brittney Griner, who fouled out with 4:42 left for just the second time this season. G Leilani Mitchell was 5-of-7 from 3-point and led Phoenix with 19 points, one more than Griner. The Mercury are 0-6 in WNBA playoff final four games since 2015. Game 3 is at 2 p.m. Sunday at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Sparks: All five starters scored in double figures in Game 1 and F Nneka Ogwumike just missed a double-double (19 points/9 rebounds). LA only used two players off the bench. “We have to figure out a way to limit someone and do a better job limiting easy points,” Taurasi said. “Defensive breakdowns really hurt us.” LA had 11 steals and held Phoenix to 29.6 shooting (8-of-27) in the second half. “We created some turnovers, got easy baskets and got to the free throw line more,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “That’s what I saw as the difference.” Of Beard’s defense against Taurasi, Agler said, “She was there. It takes a lot of hard work and focus.” A combined 46 fouls were called and there were three technical fouls. “It was physical,” Ogwumike said. “Everybody was fighting to finish. It was intense.”
Game 3: Sunday, Los Angeles at Phoenix, 2 p.m., ESPN.
Game 4: Tuesday, Sept. 19, Los Angeles at Phoenix, 7 p.m., ESPN2. *if necessary
Game 5: Thursday, Sept. 21 Phoenix at Los Angeles, 7 p.m., ESPN2. *if necessary
Mercury lose Game 1 to Sparks
Joseph D’Hippolito, Special for azcentral sports
Sept. 12, 2017
LOS ANGELES – The Mercury’s frustration against the Los Angeles Sparks during the regular season extended into their first game in the WNBA semifinals Tuesday night.
Though Leilani Mitchell scored 19 points, a career high in the playoffs, the Mercury suffered a 79-66 loss to the Sparks at the Staples Center.
“I thought we fought hard,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “It was a hard-fought game. For the most part, we executed. They just had too many options to score. We just have to play with a little more poise and get open.”
The Mercury have lost all four games they’ve played this year against the Sparks, who can take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series Thursday night at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid.
Mitchell made five of seven shots from 3-point range and five of 10 overall. Brittney Griner contributed 18 points before fouling out, and Camille Little tied her career-playoff best with 11 rebounds.
But Diana Taurasi, who was averaging 18.5 points during the playoffs, missed eight of 10 shots – including all four from 3-point range – and finished with only six points while being guarded by Alana Beard, named the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the day.
“We’ve just come off two games and fresher legs would have helped her a little bit,” Brondello said about Taurasi. “But we’ve got to try to help her get open more, and help her get some easier looks.”
After both teams fought to a 42-42 halftime tie, Los Angeles took control early in the second half. A 6-0 blitz in the first 2:40 of the third quarter put the Sparks ahead, 48-42.
Chelsea Gray drove for a layup 33 seconds into the third quarter. Nneka Ogwumike followed with another layup with 1:06 gone, then Ogwumike deflected Mitchell’s pass to Gray, who sent a long pass to Parker for another lay-in with 2:41 expired in the period. For the game, the Sparks outscored the Mercury in the lane, 40-16.
The Mercury responded by failing to score a basket until Griner drove for a lay-in with 5:14 left in the third quarter. The visitors missed 10 of 12 shots from the floor in the period.
With the Mercury trailing 56-50 early in the final quarter, the Sparks expanded the margin. After Beard drove for another lay-in, Parker made a 3-point shot to give Los Angeles a 61-50 lead with 8:49 to play.
MORE WNBA PLAYOFFS: Lynx bury Mystics in Game 1 of semis
The Mercury built a 17-9 advantage in the first 4:39, with Griner and Mitchell scoring six points apiece. But Los Angeles responded with a 10-2 blitz to force a 19-19 tie with 2:37 left in the first quarter. Griner’s two free throws provided the visitors’ only points during that span, as the Mercury failed to score a basket for 3:26.
Both teams exchanged the lead five times in the final 2:09 of the first half before Taurasi’s free throw with six-tenths of a second remaining tied the score at 42 for halftime.
Tuesday night’s game culminated a hectic five days, with the Mercury’s 88-83 playoff victory over the Connecticut Sun on Sunday coming at the midpoint of the itinerary.
“On Friday, we flew from Phoenix to Boston and bused it to Connecticut,” Brondello said. “Yesterday, we started very early. We bused it to Boston, had a stopover in Houston and got to LA late last night. There’s not much rest. It would’ve been nice if we had one more day.”
Parker finished with 15 points while Ogwumike tied Mitchell as the game’s leading scorer with 19 points and added nine rebounds.
Mercury at Sparks
What: WNBA semifinal, Game 2 (Sparks lead series 1-0).
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles.
Game 3: Sunday, Los Angeles at Phoenix, 2 p.m., ESPN.
Game 4: Tuesday, Sept. 19, Los Angeles at Phoenix, TBD, ESPN2. *if necessary
Game 5: Thursday, Sept. 21 Phoenix at Los Angeles, TBD, ESPN2. *if necessary
Mercury taking on rival Sparks in fifth straight WNBA final four
After winning two single-elimination playoff road games last season, the Phoenix Mercury were running on empty for the WNBA semifinals.
Not to mention that Minnesota has the Mercury’s number, winning 13 straight in the series, including playoffs, going back to August 2015.
The Lynx swept Phoenix 3-0 in the 2016 best-of-5 semifinal series before losing in five to Los Angeles in a classic WNBA Finals.
For the Mercury, it was back to the drawing board, replacing over 80 percent of their roster with fingers crossed that All-Stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner would remain enough of a foundation to extend a franchise-best, four-year playoff streak alive.
Griner played like a league most valuable player for much of the season and Taurasi at 35 still is a top-10 scorer and defensive priority. Though Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman did not win WNBA Executive of the Year, he and fourth-year coach Sandy Brondello found the complementary pieces to actually create a better team than last season, despite losses of starters Penny Taylor (retirement), DeWanna Bonner (pregnancy) and Candice Dupree (trade).
The Mercury won two more games in the regular season (18-16), an improvement from 2016 that would have been greater had Griner not missed eight games due to injury.
“We still haven’t done anything compared to what we did last year,” Taurasi cautioned after the regular-season finale Sept. 3, referencing postseason wins over Indiana and New York.
But now they have, reaching the WNBA final four for a fifth straight time.
The No. 5 seed Mercury beat No. 8 Seattle 79-69 in a first-round elimination game held at Arizona State then Sunday rallied from 17 down in the first half to win 88-83 at No. 4 Connecticut.
Because teams are re-seeded each round, the Mercury will face No. 2 Los Angeles while No. 1 Minnesota gets to take on No. 6 Washington, who knocked off No. 3 New York.
Whether it’s a plus for Phoenix to be facing the Sparks (26-8 regular season) instead of Minnesota (27-7) is debatable. The Mercury are 0-7 combined against the past two WNBA champions this season, losing by an average of 16 points to the Sparks and 19 to the Lynx.
“It doesn’t matter,” Brondello said. “They’re two great teams and we have a lot of respect for them. We’re the underdog with nothing to lose. Each game is going to be tough. The only good thing is we’ll be back on the same time and won’t have to travel too far in between.”
With their recent futility against Minnesota, the Mercury probably are better off taking their chances against Los Angeles, a team they haven’t faced in the playoffs since 2014 and that has been their geographical rival for 21 years. Phoenix is 6-4 all-time against the Sparks in the postseason including 3-0 at the Staples Center, where Games 1-2 will be held Tuesday and Thursday.
“It’s the playoffs now, everything is new,” Brondello said. “They’re the champions so the pressure is on them. They only go seven deep, but everybody does their job, that’s what makes them a good team. We need to stay true to our identity and hopefully steal a game in Los Angeles.”
Four Sparks starters scored in double figures in the most recent meeting, an 82-67 Los Angeles win on Aug. 24, including a season-high 28 points from point guard Odyssey Sims with eight assists. The Mercury were without Taurasi that night as Brondello sat her for rest.
On June 18, Taurasi broke the WNBA career scoring record in a Mercury blowout loss (90-59) at Los Angeles. The first meeting was a toss-up with the Sparks prevailing 89-87 on June 10 when Sims was still coming off the bench.
Mercury at Los Angeles Sparks
What: WNBA semifinal Game 1
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles.
Mercury: Phoenix now is on a five-game win streak that began Aug. 27 when guards Leilani Mitchell and Yvonne Turner joined the starting lineup. They combined for 32 points in the first round against Seattle and 23 in the second round vs. Connecticut. The Mercury limited the Sun to 33 second-half points after giving up 50 in the first half. “We played with way more poise and controlled the tempo,” coach Sandy Brondello said. “That’s what makes us effective. We made shots (three 3-pointers) at the end and that gave us confidence we could finish the game.”
Sparks: Los Angeles last played Sept. 3, closing the regular season with seven straight wins. The Sparks had first- and second-round playoff byes and their last loss was Aug. 13. F Nneka Ogwumike and C Candace Parker made Associated Press All-WNBA first team and G Alana Beard was league Defensive Player of the Year. Rookie G Sydney Wiese of Phoenix will be making her postseason debut.
Upcoming games: 7 p.m. Thursday, Staples Center; 2 p.m. Sunday, Talking Stick Resort Arena; Sept. 19 (if necessary), Talking Stick Resort Arena; Sept. 21 (if needed), Staples Center.
Mercury recent playoff results
2013: 2-1 series win over Los Angeles, 0-2 loss to Minnesota.
2014: 2-0 win over Los Angeles, 2-1 win over Minnesota, 3-0 over Chicago (WNBA champions).
2015: 2-0 win over Tulsa, 0-2 loss to Minnesota.
2016: 1-0 win over Indiana, 1-0 win over New York, 0-3 loss to Minnesota.
2017: 1-0 win over Seattle, 1-0 win over Connecticut, best-of-5 vs. Los Angeles.