Suns’ rookie Deandre Ayton purchased 300 tickets and will make them available free to fans
For a third consecutive season, the Phoenix Mercury are forced to take the hard road in their bid for a fourth WNBA title.
They did not finish as one of the league’s top four teams to earn a playoff bye in the first and/or second rounds and must win elimination games to reach the semifinals for a sixth consecutive season.
The Mercury negotiated their first- and second-round landmines in 2016 (winning twice on the road) and 2017 (home and road wins) only to fall 3-0 in best-of-five semifinals series both years. They appear better positioned to play a competitive series this season but first must get past Dallas on Tuesday. If they do that, they face a long flight to Connecticut on Thursday.
“You find a lot of really good teams on the verge of elimination with a bad game, a bad half, a bad quarter,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. “It’s a really fine line of feeling like you’re a good team, like I think we are, and still having to play like it. You don’t get a second chance so we’ll see.”
For a second consecutive year, the Mercury (20-14) are the No. 5 playoff seed and playing their first-round game at Arizona State’s Wells Fargo Arena due to a concert conflict at Talking Stick Resort Arena. They beat Seattle 79-69 at ASU in 2017 then won 88-83 at Connecticut in the second round.
This year, their opponent is No. 8 seed Dallas (15-19), a more dangerous team than their disastrous regular-season finish suggests. The Wings lost 10 of their past 11 games, fired coach Fred Williams on Aug. 12 and have gone 1-2 under interim coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
But Dallas 6-8 center Liz Cambage is the WNBA scoring leader (23.0 ppg), guard Skylar Diggins-Smith is No. 10 in scoring (17.9 ppg) and 6-3 power forward Glory Johnson is a thorn for the Mercury.
Phoenix is 2-1 against Dallas this season but lost badly (101-72) in the most recent meeting on July 10 when it still was recovering from the loss of power forward Sancho Lyttle to season-ending injury. The Mercury won the first two meetings, 86-78 in the season opener May 18 and 75-72 on June 12.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re keeping them out of the paint and contesting without fouling,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, who turned 50 Monday. “Make sure we’re doing a good job on Cambage and Diggins, who get a lot of shots. If the momentum does change (in Dallas’ favor), it has to be a really short momentum change.”
The Mercury are on a four-game win streak and 5-2 in August since 6-4 DeWanna Bonner moved full-time to power forward with Stephanie Talbot taking her place as the starter at small forward.
Over those seven games, Bonner is averaging 21.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists. She enters the playoffs as the Western Conference Player of the Week.
“We’ve definitely found a better rhythm than what we had when we lost Sancho (on June 30),” Bonner said. “Now we’re all learning how to play together, get back to our roles and get settled and make up some of those things that Sancho did.”
Rebounding is a major focus now for Bonner, who pulled a career-high 16 boards last week against Atlanta. The 6-2 Talbot also is helping particularly on offensive rebounding and hustle plays that add up to additional possessions.
Talbot will be wearing a mask Tuesday and probably beyond after suffering a broken nose in the opening minute on Sunday. She still played 26 minutes, scoring a career-high 18 points.
The matchup of the night will be Cambage against 6-9 Brittney Griner in a true center duel not often seen these days in the NBA. It’s the first playoff meeting between the two, who have somewhat negated each other in Cambage’s first season back in the WNBA since 2013 when Griner was a rookie.
“Everybody makes it a big deal,” said Griner, sixth in WNBA scoring (20.5 ppg). “I think me and Liz both don’t look at it like that. We look at it as a basketball game. It’s the same way playing Minnesota. Everybody talks about me and Sylvia (Fowles), and we’re just trying to play to the best of our ability for our team to win.
“Liz is hands down a great post player. What she’s done this season, we definitely don’t want to overlook. We know she can put up numbers. It’s going to be a joint effort across the board on trying to limit her or just make it hard.”
Taurasi, named Western Conference Player of the Month on Monday, is as healthy as she’s been going into the playoffs since 2014. The 36-year-old posted consecutive career-high, 14-assist games on Aug. 12 and 17 and seems like a lock to make All-WNBA first team for the 10th time and first since 2014.
Taurasi is 46-6 in elimination games in the NCAA Tournament, WNBA (15-5) playoffs and Olympic play.
“A lot of us can draw back on our college experience, overseas,” Taurasi said. “You have to go out and try to win the game. It’s not a series, there’s no adjustment. Sometimes that makes you play your best.”
Dallas Wings at Phoenix Mercury
Where: Wells Fargo Arena.
Outlook: Mercury G Briann January will be playing at Wells Fargo Arena for the first time since her ASU Senior Day on Feb. 28, 2009. She is a second-year ASU women’s basketball assistant in addition to her pro career. “It’s going back home for me. I have all the feels thinking about it. That’s home.” … Phoenix went 2-0 against the Tulsa Shock (now Dallas Wings) in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals. Two players from that Tulsa team still are with the Wings, who also have former Mercury C Cayla George. … Players from both teams including the Mercury’s Stephanie Talbot and Dallas’ Liz Cambage will be playing for Australia under Mercury coach Sandy Brondello at the World Cup, Sept. 22-30 in Spain. … Suns rookie Deandre Ayton purchased 300 tickets and will make them available free to fans on a first-come, first-serve basis on the north side of the arena beginning at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Fans can claim up to four tickets per person, while supplies last.