Mercury navigate foul trouble to dominate Liberty

Bria Hartley sets a career high in points yet again

AUGUST 2: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against the New York Liberty on August 2, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto,FL Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

There have been two themes in the early going for the Phoenix Mercury: navigating around serious foul trouble and the impact of Bria Hartley.

Both played out once again in the team’s 96-67 victory over the New York Liberty.

After tying her career high in a loss to the Indiana Fever two games ago, Hartley put up 27 to set a new record in the win over her former team. Once again, she did it off the bench, although she played the second-most minutes on the team.

“She's a scorer. I put her in position so she can score,” head coach Sandy Brondello said about Hartley’s success so far with Phoenix. “Great pick-and-roll player, great in transition, can shoot the 3, mid-range. Really, she has it all….But Bria just fits the system. You know, we run a lot of pick and rolls, so if you're a pick-and-roll player, you're gonna fit into this system.”

Hartley agreed that the fit in Phoenix has been to her benefit.

“I'm a scoring guard,” Hartley said. I think in some other offenses, it kind of fitted a pass-first point guard which that didn't necessarily fit my game. I think here, we have great passers like (Diana Taurasi), you got playmakers like (Skylar Diggins-Smith), so I'm able to kind of just focus on coming off being aggressive. But then I can still be a playmaker, as well, but definitely just be aggressive, look for my shot.

“And I think, I say it all the time, Sandy’s really encouraged me, even coming to training camp. She's like, ‘You're a little tentative, like, come on. We're looking to shoot, be ready.’ And I hear that all the time and it's just really encouraging to hear a coach say that to you. So I do think here, Phoenix fits my style of basketball.”

As Hartley noted, her ability to be effective is reliant on those around her. Taurasi, in particular, has come out hard after the first two games. The star veteran wasn’t happy with her lack of aggressiveness in the two opening losses.

“I think the first few games, personally, I didn't bring the right energy, the right focus,” Taurasi said. “And I had a little chat with (Brittney Griner) before the fourth quarter and we just don't work well when we're passive as individuals in life. And I think sometimes in these settings, you just want to go about your business and let things come, but that just doesn't work well for us. So I've made an effort to make sure I just come ready to play and do whatever I can do to make sure we're productive out there.”

Taurasi’s 18 points and nine assists were crucial to that productivity. Along with Hartley, she was one of five players who put up double figures for Phoenix. Two of those players came off the bench.

What held the team back and allowed the Liberty to find their way back into the game in the third quarter were fouls. Specifically, fouls on Griner. Griner picked up her fifth foul at 6:38 in the third and went to the bench.

Just over four minutes later, the Liberty had cut the 13-point Mercury lead to just two.

Brondello went to the zone to protect Griner in the final period, allowing the veteran team to pull away from the rookie-laden NY squad that is missing the league’s No. 1 overall pick in Sabrina Ionescu.

The question is how to avoid getting to the point of Griner being pushed to the bench with fouls in the first place.

Griner said that she needs to be a “mf on the court,” but she also needs to learn where the cut-off is for the officials and not push beyond that. That includes on the offensive end, as Brondello noted that some of Griner’s fouls are coming on illegal screens.

While those adjustments may need to be made from game to game, the bigger questions are being answered. If the last two games are any indication, the Mercury are finally finding their on-court chemistry.

“When everybody's on and hitting, we got posts down low and all our guards and everybody on the wings are just firing, it's hard to guard,” Griner said. “You got to give up something. And then it's just our job to have basketball IQ to get the ball into the right person's hand, which, you know, that's coming and we're learning and you see it.”