Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith return to the court, but Phoenix struggles

The Phoenix Mercury can't put two halves together against the Los Angeles Sparks

PALMETTO, FL - JULY 25: Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury dribbles 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/NBAE via GettyImages)

The last time Skylar Diggins-Smith played a WNBA game, it was against the Phoenix Mercury in the opening round of the 2018 playoffs. That season, she and Diana Taurasi were the only two players in the top 10 in both scoring and assists per game. On Saturday, they joined forces on a team that has five new faces.

“We knew it wasn't going to be sexy to start with,” Diggins-Smith said.

And it wasn’t.

The new-look Phoenix Mercury played promising basketball for the first 20 minutes of their opening day match-up against the Los Angeles Sparks. At the half, the teams were locked in a 50-46 battle with the Sparks taking the slight lead into the locker room.

Then came the third quarter. The Sparks showed what a talented team of veterans can do even with a shortened training camp. At the end of the third stanza, they had blown the doors open and taken an 80-54 advantage. The romp ended in a 99-76 victory for Los Angeles.

“Obviously, LA played great today,” Taurasi said. “Taking nothing away from what they did. They're an experienced, really talented group. And, you know, they punched us in the face today, and then we didn't react the way we need to.”

Taurasi went 4-for-12 and said that she wished she had a couple of her shots back.

“I was probably a little nervous and ready to get after it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Nneka Ogwumike was showing no nerves. The Sparks forward, who was integral to negotiating the new collective bargaining agreement and the agreement that made the 2020 season possible, was just as effective on the court. The WNBPA president went 8-for-8 from the field and hit all three of her free throws.

Six of the Sparks scored in double digits, led by Ogwumike’s 21. For the Mercury, only Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley broke the double-digit barrier. The Mercury had as many turnovers (27) as made field goals.

“When you're indecisive on the floor, and you're not sure of yourself, and you second-guess maybe where you should be or where the pass should go instead of playing the game the way it should be—off aggression—that's when I think you get in trouble,” Taurasi said. “And there were times when I second-guessed myself and I got myself in trouble. And I've been playing this game forever, literally forever and on this team, So, we weren't as sharp as we need to be to compete and that's just the bottom line. And there were other things that we need to clean up, but obviously turnovers are a big, big factor.”

It wasn’t entirely unexpected for a team that not only has five new players this year, but also has four players who missed part or all of last season. In addition to starters Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, reserves Kia Vaughn and Alanna Smith were getting back into the swing of the WNBA after missing time in 2019.

That’s not a recipe for on-court perfection, especially after short preparation.

“It's literally the first time all 10 of us have been on the court together,” Taurasi said. “A couple of injuries and some nicks in training camp. It was funny because Skylar leans over to me and she goes, 'D, this is the first time all 10 of us have had a uniform on on the court.' So we have a long way to go.”

Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and their head coach were all confident that they would get there.

For Taurasi, it comes down to her health. She said that it was the first time she had been pain-free on the court in a while.

“On an individual note (it) is really gratifying,” she said. “After such a long time of rehab, on-court, all these things. So, personally, I feel pretty good. Obviously it did not show on the win side, but it's a step in the right direction.”

For Diggins-Smith, everything flows from a feeling of cohesion within the group. That cohesion wasn’t threatened by one poor half of basketball.

“I'm happy to be a part of this organization,” she said. “Nobody's pointing the finger at anybody else, but saying what they need to get better at. So we have a group full of women who are dedicated to this team. We've got a group full of vets and great leadership from Sandy on down. So, we just got to keep going and give the Phoenix Mercury, the X Factor, something to be proud of.”