Mercury’s early-season woes continue as Brittney Griner injures hip in loss to Seattle Storm

The Phoenix Mercury trail most of the WNBA in key statistical categories on defense. The team’s defensive numbers could dip even lower after Brittney Griner’s injury in Tuesday’s loss to the Seattle Storm. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Mercury were on the rise after a come-from-behind win in Indiana – their second victory in seven games – before the season took a turn.

Brittney Griner suffered a hip injury that sidelined her for the second half of Tuesday’s game against the Seattle Storm, adding to the list of difficulties the Mercury will have to overcome to remain competitive.

Phoenix was outscored by 21 points during Griner’s nine minutes on the floor, and she managed to score only two points. The severity of her injury is unknown, but it clearly affected her performance.

The Mercury consequently fell to the previously last-place Storm (2-6), 83-69, but Phoenix (2-6) continued to hurt itself in other areas that have been issues for this team since the start of the season.

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The most glaring of the team’s shortcomings start on defense. The Mercury hold the second-worst defensive rating (allowing 104.9 points per 100 possessions) among the 12 WNBA teams. They’re also dead last in offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds, a stat that doesn’t look to improve in the absence of Griner’s 6-foot-9 frame.

The Mercury’s defense is middle of the pack in regards to opponent’s field goal percentage, but not being able to rebound the ball has led to an atrocious 16.4 second-chance points per game, more than double the first-place Washington Mystics (7.6) in that category. The Mercury also rank 10th in steals, and no one other than Griner averages more than one block per game.

“That focus comes down to individual improvement, working with our players one on one to make sure they know exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “We just got to get better.”

Turnovers are also a big issue for this team. The Mercury turn the ball over 17.8 times per game, the most of any team. Not only does this lead to allowing the third-most points off turnovers, but it also means the Mercury are taking fewer shots than other teams, ranking last in field goals attempted.

The Mercury score with an above-average efficiency (third in field goal percentage), but when they can’t hold on to the ball long enough to finish possessions with a field goal attempt, the efficiency of those attempts loses its value.

Another issue the Mercury are facing, which may or may not be in their control, is a free throw discrepancy. Phoenix is called for the second-most fouls in the league, yet draws the least amount of fourth-quarter fouls and free throw attempts. Again, efficiency isn’t the problem, as the Mercury sink 87.5% of their last-quarter free throws, but they can’t seem to get to the line.

The Mercury players feel that Diana Taurasi is most hurt by the foul-call discrepancy. Taurasi was held scoreless for only the fifth time in her 19-year career Tuesday, attempting six field goals and being called for three fouls.

Sug Sutton is one of the bright spots to a 2-6 start for the Phoenix Mercury with her unique passing ability. “That’s the role that I have on this team, and I do it,” Sutton said. (Photo by Joey Plishka/Cronkite News)

Sug Sutton is one of the bright spots to a 2-6 start for the Phoenix Mercury with her unique passing ability. “That’s the role that I have on this team, and I do it,” Sutton said. (Photo by Joey Plishka/Cronkite News)

Sophie Cunningham, who contributed 21 points, including five free throws, blasted the referees for their perceived disrespect towards Taurasi.

“I think she’s getting screwed on a lot of calls,” Cunningham said. “She’s the GOAT of our game. It’s honestly embarrassing. They’re just worried about the wrong things. Focus on what you do and call it fairly. I think she’s put in enough time, enough blood and tears, that you got to give her a little respect, and right now, if I was a ref, I’d be embarrassed.”

On a positive note, the Mercury managed to find some offense getting out in transition and passing to back-cuts towards the rim. Guards Shey Peddy and Sug Sutton combined for 11 assists and used their speed to push the pace of the game.

“That’s the role that I have on this team, and I do it,” Sutton said. “I come in every day and I try to do that every single game just because I’m able to. I’m really good at it, so this is something I want to continue to bring to this team, continue to bring excitement to our offense.”

At this point in the season, the Mercury place 11th in overall pace (possessions per game), but there is an opportunity for the team to play faster without leaning so hard on Taurasi and Griner’s half-court offensive style.

Moving forward, it’s clear the Mercury have many areas in which there is room to grow. The team boasts an encouraging mix of veteran experience and young, flashy players looking to make a difference, so if there’s any mix of players capable of limiting mistakes and turning around their season from a 2-6 start, it’s this group.

“I’m tired of losing,” Cunningham said. “I’m ready to catch a rhythm with our team. Enough is enough. Our vibe has to change. Our energy has to change. It is hard when you don’t have B (Brittney Griner) in the game. You can’t predict her getting hurt or what not. Like coach said, you just have to show up, go to work and keep working hard. Eventually, things will turn around, but it is a part of the process, and you have to fall in love with the process. These times right here is what makes the highs really high and exciting. Good thing we play on Friday. You got to move on.”

The schedule moving forward will be less than forgiving, as the Mercury head to Washington Friday to face the Mystics (5-4) in the first of three straight games against teams with a winning record.

They face the New York Liberty (6-3) Sunday, then host the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces (8-1) Wednesday.

Josh Bootzin jaw-sh boot-zin (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Josh Bootzin expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He receive bachelor’s of arts degrees in statistics and creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 and hopes to build a career in data journalism around proficiencies in statistics, print journalism and a love for sports.

Joseph Plishka joh-sif pl-ih-sh-ka
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joey Plishka expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in December of 2023. Plishka is a multimedia journalist who has interned in communications at New City Church, as a photo director for WCSN and as a photo editor for the Arizona Coyotes.