Sancho Lyttle was the Phoenix Mercury’s prime offseason free-agent target for a reason.

The 6-5 power forward came with six WNBA All-Defensive first- or second-team honors and a successful history playing in Russia with Mercury stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner.

For the first half of the season, teaming Lyttle with 6-9 Griner worked perfectly. The Mercury shook off a 2-3 start with eight consecutive wins – the second-longest streak in their 22-year history – and stood 12-5 at the turn of a compressed season due to the World Cup in September.

Then Lyttle suffered a season-ending knee injury June 30. The Mercury managed to win that game and the next, reaching 14-5. They are 2-9 since, a free fall that won’t prevent them from making the eight-team playoffs but could derail any meaningful postseason success.

“When you lose Sancho, she does so much on the court,” Taurasi said. “Go back and watch some of the film. She did so much for us. We haven’t been able to replace that activity and that energy. It’s not going to be one person. It has to be a little bit from everyone.”

Virtually everyone has had a crack at replacing Lyttle.

Coach Sandy Brondello tried 2017 starting power forward Camille Little. She played Griner and center Angel Robinson together. Starting small forward DeWanna Bonner moved to power forward. When room became available under the salary cap, the Mercury signed Devereaux Peters and gave her a look. Rookie center Marie Gulich gets some minutes now and then.

Nothing filled the defensive and rebounding hole left behind by Lyttle, who was averaging 7.9 points and 5.3 boards but might as well be considered the second coming of Bill Russell for as far as the Mercury have dropped without her.

They have not beaten a current playoff-bound team since July 5, also their last home win, and are 0-5 at home since July 19 going into Friday’s game against last-place Indiana.

After a loss to league-leading Seattle in the first game following the All-Star break, Brondello made what could be her final major move in the puzzling post problem.

She put Stephanie Talbot into the starting lineup essentially at small forward, where Talbot started most of 2017 as a rookie when Bonner was out due to pregnancy. That leaves Bonner at power forward, although that’s hard to tell when she’s shooting from 25 feet and beyond.

The Mercury are 1-3 with Talbot starting (she also started July 25 when Taurasi was suspended), but two of the defeats were by five points or less to playoff teams. She’s averaging 6.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 33.5 minutes in her four starts and, most importantly at age 24, infusing an older team with energy and hustle.

“Talbot’s been good for us,” Brondello said. “She gives us the energy, she runs the floor, she plays good defense, she shoots when she’s open, she’s one of our best passers. Any time you get to play, it’s a natural carryover (in confidence).  She can relax, she’s playing with starters, she plays her role well.”

Talbot, a 2016 Olympian for Australia, is far from a polished product but clearly seems like the Mercury’s best option for now, no matter which forward spot she ends up playing in a given possession.

“Generally (Bonner) is the four, but defensively it’s easy, we can switch if it if I get stuck or she gets stuck,” Talbot said. “Offensively I run the three, but she plays the four like a three-man. I don’t think it matters with this team. We’ve got BG (Griner) down low so if we have four out and one in, it doesn’t affect us I don’t think.”

But the Mercury are allowing 90.1 points over the last 11 games and committing far too many unforced turnovers. Their offense is not diverse enough and ball movement, which can be sharp, too often stalls in the hands of one of the three All-Stars.

For Talbot, likely to play for the Australian National team with coach Brondello at the World Cup and the 2020 Olympics, the present is about winning 50-50 plays and contributing in ways that don’t always show up in a box score.

“Off the court, they’re all crazy enough, there’s plenty of energy in the locker room,” Talbot said. “On the court, that’s something I can bring as a younger player. It’s a given as younger player, that’s something you can control. Your shot might not drop, but if you’re bringing the energy, something good will hopefully happen.”

Friday’s game

Indiana Fever at Phoenix Mercury 

When: 7 p.m. | Season schedule | WNBA standings

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena.


Outlook: The Mercury (16-14) clinched their sixth consecutive WNBA playoff berth with a Las Vegas loss Thursday to Minnesota. … The Mercury are looking to sweep the season series vs. Indiana. Phoenix beat the Fever 95-77 on June 29 and 101-82 on July 15 when Brittney Griner scored 36 points. … Indiana (5-24) has played better since acquiring G Cappie Pondexter, winning two of their last three and three of their last six. … All fans in the lower bowl will receive pink t-shirts on ‘Rock the Pink Night’. Players will wear breast health awareness jerseys, and there will be a live auction after the game of game-worn uniforms and memorabilia from select players and coaches. Fans also can bid on team items through Sunday. Proceeds benefit the American Cancer Society.