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.
The Phoenix Mercury don’t have time to not be aggressive.
That was the message from Diana Taurasi to reserve guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough before the Mercury’s fourth straight win, a decisive romp over the Las Vegas Aces, 92-85 Tuesday night.
While in this case Taurasi was specifically referencing Walker-Kimbrough’s offensive game, encouraging the young guard to do her best Lou Williams impression and get Phoenix instant buckets off the bench, Taurasi could have been talking about the entire Mercury season.
Down to just eight healthy players heading into the game and losing starting wing Sophie Cunningham after 10 minutes, the Mercury are desperate. A playoff spot seems likely now after four straight wins, but if Phoenix wants to make more of its season, they can’t be timid.
With that mindset, the Mercury have played this past week as if each game truly could be the last. They’ve pulled back from the bottom of the playoff picture to a 10-7 record, with Taurasi playing like her vintage self and the star back court finally making good on its promise. Against the Aces, it took 24 first-half points from Taurasi behind a barrage of threes to create momentum for a season sweep over their southwestern rivals.
“Every game going in, I feel really good, because we’re playing together on both ends of the floor and you see the results,” head coach Sandy Brondello said.
Everything clicked on offense, as the Mercury tallied 26 assists to just eight turnovers, nailed 14 triples, and saw Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith both go off yet again. But a pregame challenge on defense was the difference in a game against A’ja Wilson, Angel McCoughtry and the diligent Aces.
Las Vegas is not a team that will beat itself, and their late run was predictable. But Wilson was stymied by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Brianna Turner, who has looked like a new player since the departure of Brittney Griner from the Bubble, and McCoughtry’s minutes were limited.
“They’re a great team, their record shows they’re a great team,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “We knew we had to lock in on defense and limit their (stars’) touches.”
With the confidence of having Turner on the back line, Phoenix focused on funneling Las Vegas’ guards toward Turner, who had five blocks on the night. When the Aces ran offense through Wilson at the elbow, it became simply a matter of making the MVP candidate work, Turner said. The pregame scout showed Wilson was bound to get somewhere around 15 shot attempts because of her high usage this season, but Turner focused on getting a hand up and reacting to Wilson’s various dribble moves and twirls rather than trying to out-think Wilson.
A strong first half from Taurasi and Turner meant Phoenix simply needed to nurse its lead to take home a second win over Las Vegas, and their ability to do so was another sign of grown on the part of this team. Keeping energy high and maintaining momentum has been rare for the Mercury in 2020, in part because of their own mistakes. Keeping the turnover total to just eight was huge in beating the Aces as well as creating good habits going forward.
“We went through a stage there where we had too many turnovers and it was a real Achilles’ heel for us even back to the first game against LA,” Brondello said. “Sometimes it’s just playing with poise and (relaxing) a little bit and decision-making goes up, and I think that’s been the key for us.”
Winners of four straight, Phoenix is suddenly within reach of a bye through the first single-elimination round of the WNBA playoffs. A more aggressive and consistent version of the Mercury has proven to be a handful the past several days for even the WNBA’s best.