All hands on deck for the Phoenix Mercury
How are the Mercury navigating the injuries as they fight for a playoff spot?
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited, and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives, and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues, and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
PALMETTO, FL - SEPTEMBER 1: Skylar Diggins-Smith #4 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against the Las Vegas Aces on September 1, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)
The story of the shorthanded Phoenix Mercury isn’t new. It’s been a topic of conversation since they opted to go with 11 players to start the season and pay big salaries to their veterans. As the injuries piled up, it became the theme of the Mercury’s bubble experience.
It hasn’t been the death of the season, though.
The ever-dwindling roster is clawing its way towards the playoffs yet again, sitting in sixth place in the standings as the 10-7 team prepares for the 18th contest in the 22-game regular season. With a victory over the Indiana Fever on Thursday, the Mercury will clinch their eighth straight playoff appearance.
“We don't feel sorry for ourselves, because no one else feels sorry for us,” Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said after the Mercury swept the season series with Las Vegas. “Everybody on our team, players are more than capable of stepping up, and I think we showed that tonight. I’m so proud of this team.”
That game against the Aces saw yet another player go down with injury when second-year guard Sophie Cunningham went out with a hip injury. Walker-Kimbrough stepped in for the starter and didn’t look back, putting together a 15-point game with four rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block in 30 minutes.
“I didn't even know Sophie was injured,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I mean, I just go and try to stay focused when I'm there. I realized I didn't come out. So I'm just saying to stay locked in and doing whatever needs to be done.”
Cunningham’s injury was far from the first setback for the Mercury. The hits started as soon as preparation for the bubble season did.
Free-agent signee Jessica Breland was the first out, getting a medical exemption for the season because of her bout with cancer back in college. Next to be out long-term was star center Brittney Griner who had to leave the bubble for personal reasons. Then, Bria Hartley was lost to an ACL tear in the middle of her breakout season.
Three key players the Mercury lost for the season.
Sprinkled in the middle were more short-term losses. The team’s major free agent signing, Skylar Diggins-Smith, was limited in training camp. Cunningham had a delayed start due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Once the season started, the injuries began to stack up fairly quickly. Before being lost for the year, Hartley was out for three games with Achilles soreness. Diana Taurasi also missed three games due to a back injury.
In addition to Cunningham, Nia Coffey has been another recent addition to the injury report. She alternates days being listed as questionable and out. Coffey has now missed four games and may be on her way to the fifth absence against Indiana.
None of it has deterred the Mercury. It has hampered their consistency, though. Putting four quarters together has been a challenge at times, and the team swings from being unable to win to looking like they can't lose.
After starting the season 0-2, they went on a four-game winning streak. They would put together another string of losses, going 0-3 from Aug. 16-21. Once again, they responded by reeling off four wins in a row.
They will try to push that to a season-high five wins in a row when they take on Indiana.
Taurasi and Diggins-Smith have carried much of the offensive load during the current winning streak. Taurasi has two 30-plus scoring games and her mate in the backcourt has games of 24 and 25 points.
Diggins-Smith has been a threat both on the drive and from the 3-point line, adding a new wrinkle to her game this season.
Coming into the 2020 season, Diggins-Smith had only shot better than 35 percent from distance once. That was back in 2015 when she was in her third season and still based in Tulsa. For most of her career, she has been a sub-.300 shooter from outside.
This year, Diggins-Smith is attempting 4.9 shots from beyond the arc. She's connecting on 43.4 percent of them. Both stats are the second-highest in her career.
What's behind that improvement?
“It's just like Diana,” head coach Sandy Brondello said. “They put the work in. The more you put in, the more you get out of this game, and it goes for any part of it.”
The team couldn't win without that effort by the two-star guards, but everyone has contributed. Phoenix has had at least four double-digit scorers in three of the four wins during the current streak.
“We're not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Taurasi said. “If you're open, you have to shoot it. We're just keeping it really simple. Trust the pass. You're open, shoot it.”
On the boards, Brianna Turner has led the team in rebounding in three of the four games, grabbing double-digit rebounds in each of those outings. In the five games since Griner had to step aside, Turner has averaged 6.1 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2 APG, 4 BPG, and 1.6 SPG while playing 34 MPG. It has led to her team pushing hard for her to be named Defensive Player of the Year.
Turner said she has made it her goal to get at least 10 rebounds per game since Griner was ruled out. More often than not, she’s met that goal.
The starters have picked things up, but the reserves have also done their part as people shift in and out of the lineup. The only game that Turner didn’t lead in rebounding was handled by Alanna Smith, who grabbed eight boards off the bench against the Washington Mystics.
Smith has also had big defensive games, joining Turner in picking up on blocked shots since the departure of Griner. While Smith has seen her minutes decrease since the introduction of Shey Peddy, she has given the Mercury 8.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, and 1.2 BPG in 17.4 MPG since the team lost their starting center.
Peddy, a 31-year-old guard playing in just her second WNBA season, was brought in after being cut by the Mystics in mid-August. She came in off the bench to lead the Mercury with five assists in the team’s victory over Minnesota on Aug. 30. She followed that up with four dimes in the win against Las Vegas.
Walker-Kimbrough has been effective when she shows the kind of aggressiveness the team needs from her, putting up double figures on offense in two of the four contests.
What happens in the playoffs is anyone’s guess, but the Mercury showed against the second-best team in the league that they can compete even with their fading numbers. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have some help.
“It's a factor,” Taurasi said. “I think we're down to seven now. So if anyone would like to send in their resumes or DVDs or highlight tapes or Instagram highlights, send them to @PhoenixMercury.”