Defense takes center stage for Phoenix Mercury after opening day loss

Were there any positives for Phoenix in their blowout loss to Los Angeles?

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PALMETTO, FL - JULY 25: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury looks to move the ball against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images)

When asked what positives she took from Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello hesitated for a few seconds with a smile on her face.

“We had 10 offensive rebounds,” she finally said.

It might be a small thing, but the boards have been a point of emphasis for the Mercury for a few years. It was no different this season. They won the overall rebounding battle against the Sparks on opening day by one with the 10-6 edge on the offensive boards putting them over the edge.

At least it’s something. It also wasn’t the only thing. Brondello went on to praise her two starting guards, both of whom sat out most or all of last season.

“I thought Diana (Taurasi) looked good,” she said. “Someone that hasn't played in a while. I thought Skylar (Diggins-Smith) got going, too. But some of the other players, just getting a little bit more comfortable. But we want them to be more instinctual.”

Getting to the point of being more instinctual will take work, but it wasn’t entirely unforeseeable that that would be the case. And there was still light at the end of the tunnel despite the rough edges.

“When you have 27 turnovers in a game which create 38 points, you're never going to win a game,” Brondello said. “So that was more just our decision-making wasn't where it needed to be. And really that just comes down to chemistry because we did have a lot of open people, we did have a lot of open shots that we missed. So, encouraged by that.”

Along with rebounding, defense was the area of focus for Brondello and her team going into the season. In addition to on-court chemistry and decision-making, that remains a work in progress.

The Mercury allowed the Sparks to shoot 55.9 percent from the field. They often looked a step slow and out of sync. That was their assessment on Monday, as well.

“I feel like I was a little bit late on some of my help rotations,” Brianna Turner said. “So kind of leaving my guards out to dry up top. So just being more vocal behind them and let them know that I'm there. And just make sure we're helping each other out. Because obviously, if we're going on defense, it can help our transition game and all those get easy buckets on offense.”

Brondello said that, given the schedule, Monday was probably the last day that the team would be able to go hard in practice. The players were optimistic that it would be enough, though.

Griner said she thought it was realistic to expect them to look like a completely different team when they face the Indiana Fever on Wednesday. While it would take time to get the on-court chemistry going, no one was ready to panic.

“Rome wasn't built in a day, that's for sure,” Griner said.

TV exposure

On Sunday, ESPN announced that the Mercury-Sparks game averaged 540,000 viewers, making it the highest-rated WNBA opener since 2012. The increase in viewers was followed by additional good news.

ESPN announced on Monday that its group of networks would air an additional 13 games this season. For the Mercury, that means the Aug. 16 match-up against the Dallas Wings has moved from Fox Sports Arizona to ABC. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET.

NBA TV will also be airing WNBA games throughout the regular season. Phoenix makes an appearance on July 29 against Indiana beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

Beyond basketball

Griner was very adamant that she was not in support of players being on the floor for the national anthem. Aside from international competitions, she isn’t a fan of it being played at all.

“Even if we were out there (when the anthem started), I would have walked off the court,” Griner said after noting that her father was both a Vietnam War veteran and a 30-year veteran of law enforcement. “Honestly, it doesn't matter. I'm going to protest regardless. I'm not going to be out there for the national anthem. And if we continue to want to play it, that's fine. It'll be all season long. I will not be out there. I feel like there'll be more that are going to probably do the same thing, honestly. I can't speak for anybody else. I can speak for myself. And I just felt like we just should not play the national anthem honestly. At the Olympics, yeah, I understand playing it. You're playing for your country at that point, but I just don't think we should play it, honestly.”

Turner agreed, noting that when the anthem was adopted and first played at sporting events, freedom and equality for all U.S. citizens weren’t realities.

“Get out and vote,” Griner said. “Get out and vote. Make a difference. Not just with the president. Get out and vote. Get out. Do it. Make a change.”