PHOENIX – Mercury is no longer in retrograde.
That’s good news for fans of the WNBA team, which has won three straight games following a 2-8 start and is back in the thick of the playoff race two months into the season.
The astrological phenomenon, which refers to the optical illusion that the closest planet to the sun has started orbiting backward, started on May 10 and ended on June 2. Believers suggest it signifies bad omens that would not otherwise happen during Mercury’s normal orbit.
So, how did the Mercury “get out of retrograde,” as All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said in her closing remark after the team’s 91-74 home win against the Los Angeles Sparks on June 5, the first victory in the streak?
The Mercury were banged up entering the 2022 season, with the continued absence of Brittney Griner and the long-term recovery of Kia Nurse’s torn ACL suffered last October. The injuries and poor health mounted through May, as Diggins-Smith (non-COVID-19 illness), Tina Charles (shoulder) and Shey Peddy (back) all missed multiple games – some collectively – during the losing skid. At one point, the team had only eight healthy players in its first meeting against the Sparks May 25.
The trio returned toward the end of the losing streak May 31. The team had a close 73-70 loss against the Chicago Sky in a rematch of the WNBA Finals but were still attempting to find that chemistry. The Mercury had the lead against the defending champions for the majority of the fourth quarter but could not put the pesky Sky away.
“(The Sky) was very locked in,” coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “They were communicating really well. We’ve had a lot of consecutive stops, which is something we’ve been focusing on so much better – a much better effort.”
Since the main quintet of Mercury players (Diggins-Smith, Peddy, Charles, Diana Taurasi and Diamond DeShields) have played together since May 31, the team is 3-2, with the players coalescing and thriving together.
“This is our third game where we have everybody (healthy),” Nygaard said. “It’s great to have Tina back out there. I’m just happy really, of course. We want to win, but just to see progress is even better.”
The team is now excelling despite missing sharpshooting 3-point specialist Sophie Cunningham, who is out for a month with an elbow injury suffered late in the rematch game against the Sparks at the Footprint Center.
Better chemistry, team defense
The Mercury, with most of the team now healthy and available, are closing out games that they otherwise would have lost due to the increased defensive intensity during crunch time. Remember how the team was in last or second-to-last in several defensive team categories three weeks ago? Stat-wise, the Mercury have improved marginally but have forced numerous fourth quarter turnovers and unnaturally sped-up action from their opponents during the winning streak. Nygaard and the team switched from the standard man-to-man to the untraditional two-three zone late in games. The three teams – Sparks, Atlanta Dream and Mystics – were flummoxed.
“I think we’re all locked in,” Peddy said. “We’re talking more, communicating more where everybody is engaged.”
In the fourth quarter, the Mercury forced the Sparks into committing four of their game-high 19 turnovers to break the losing skid, then followed with nine Washington Mystics turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime (20 in total for the Mystics) in the 99-90 OT win in Washington D.C. June 12.
Brianna Turner said she believes watching footage of previous games is what enabled her team to be better defensive players during this winning streak.
“We just watched film and just built off of each game,” Turner said. “Every game we play, we just try to build off of and see what we did well (defensively) so we can move on.”
In wins against the Sparks and Mystics, the team outscored its opposition in each of the fourth quarters – something it could not do in recent close losses against the Sky (lost by three) and Connecticut Sun (lost by four).
Relying on veteran players
During the Mercury’s slow start to the season (2-8 in the team’s first 10 games), chemistry was an issue with new veteran players entering the rotation, like DeShields and Charles, and the myriad injuries and sickness running through the organization. The poor output goes hand-in-hand with an adjustment period for Mercury rookie coach Nygaard, whose highest position in the WNBA was an assistant coach for the then-San Antonio Stars (2008) and the Las Vegas Aces (2021). Since the team has rattled off three straight wins, Nygaard has relied on her players to educate her this season.
“The players are very aware that I’m a rookie coach,” Nygaard said. “ Just like any player, I made some mistakes. I made some tonight (against the Mystics). So, the players are also helping me, they’re actively trying to help me. … They’re stepping up and saying ‘Hey, coach, let’s do this’ or whatever. And I’m super open to that feedback. When we’re talking about some of the greatest players, the greatest player of all time (Diana Taurasi), I would be silly not to try to learn something but also to listen to them as well.”
Sharing the ball
“We’ve been offensively emphasizing sharing the ball and ball movement and we had a couple of days before we played in Atlanta (May 29) to really iron out some of those kinks,” Nygaard said after the overtime win in D.C. “I think that collective commitment of leaning on each other’s strengths, knowing who we are individually, and then knowing what we can do as a team – I think there’s a change on that side [of the ball].”
Nygaard emphasized in that same postgame media conference that the team only had nine assists in the nightmarish 27-point loss to the Atlanta Dream in Atlanta. Stagnant ball movement and terrible shot selections (18 of 68, 27% from the field) were key factors in that loss.
Over the winning streak, however, the team has doubled that assist total (19 assists per game), which in turn results in more in-rhythm shots (46.4% from the field) and more scoring from a variety of players. An average of five players scoring in double figures has been the norm during this run, which is the opposite of the 3.5 players with 10+ points in the May skid.
“Everybody’s basketball IQ is high,” Peddy said. “We have different voices in the locker room. I think that helps when everybody is engaged. Our leaders are leading us, and the bench is doing their best to back them up.”
The Mercury have averaged 20.4 assists per game in the team’s five wins this season, while averaging 17.9 assists per game in the eight losses, exacerbated by the nine-assist blowout loss at Atlanta in May.
Sky reaching new heights
The public would think that Taurasi was the team’s leading scorer during this successful three-game period. That could not be further from the truth. Her backcourt mate in Diggins-Smith scored a season-high and team-high 29 points in the win over the Sparks and had a more impressive team-high 27 points in the overtime win Sunday. More impressive, in that Diggins-Smith swished a turning-point four-point play from the left wing which turned an 83-81 fourth quarter deficit into an 84-83 lead with 32 seconds left. She then followed that up with the more routine 3-point play in overtime and her Mercury never looked back. This, with Taurasi fouling-out within the first minute of overtime.
“When Sky got that and-one (in overtime), we all just came together and then we knew that would kill the momentum,” Peddy said. “You can see it in (the Mystics’) faces. They were just down and struggling and it was game over at that point.”
Nygaard had high praise for the ninth-year guard out of Notre Dame after the game.
“Thank God for Skylar Diggins-Smith,” Nygaard said. “We are very happy to have her team. She just made some huge, huge plays for us. Her determination, her tenacity. She woke up with that this morning. I knew she was ready at shootaround, and so I’m not surprised to see her make big plays. She can always find a way. She has a tremendous will and is a tremendous competitor.
“Her intensity is something that is an incredible asset to our team. And when she brings that up, it raises the level of others around her. So when they’re all sort of clicking and figuring it out. We really are a tough team to match against.”
The Phoenix Mercury continue their second road trip of the season with a rematch against the Mystics (9-6) Tuesday night, followed by road games against the Indiana Fever (4-12), the Dallas Wings (6-7), a home-and-home versus the Minnesota Lynx (3-11) and a return to Dallas on June 25.