Can Griner & Co. turn Mercury’s season around behind back-to-back wins?

Shey Peddy, left, and Sophie Cunningham combined for 32 points off the bench in the Phoenix Mercury’s 80-62 win against the Chicago Sky at Footprint Center. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – After jumping out to a 14-point lead to start Thursday’s matchup against the Chicago Sky, the Phoenix Mercury appeared destined to cruise to a 2-0 record post-All-Star break and their first set of back-to-back wins this season.

The Sky had other plans with an 18-2 run in the third quarter to cut their deficit to two points, suggesting the night was about to turn into another world-class Mercury implosion. However, the Phoenix defense tightened up to allow Chicago only 12 points in the fourth quarter, and its bench stepped up to shoulder the scoring load to avoid disaster for an 80-62 win.

“We’ve been in that position,” Mercury coach Nikki Blue said. “We have been the team that’s been down and that kept on fighting and clawing back. It is rare that we have been in the position to hold that lead. Tonight, I felt like we showed that we could.”

The Mercury are now 4-4 in their last eight games after starting the season 2-11, silencing tanking rumors for the time being. Blue has coached the team to a 4-2 home record since taking over the team on June 25, with those four wins coming by an average of 13 points.

Team defense has played a major role in this turnaround. During the first 13 games of the season, the Mercury allowed opponents to score 108.9 points per 100 possessions, worst in the WNBA. In eight games since, Phoenix’s defense ranks in the top five, allowing 99.7 points per 100 possessions.

A much-improved interior defense deserves some credit for the improvement. In their first 13 games, the Mercury ranked last in the WNBA in defensive rebounds (23.3 per game) and second-chance points allowed (15.7 per game). During the eight games since, Phoenix improved on both those numbers – 26.5 defensive rebounds per game (sixth in WNBA) and 10.5 second-chance points allowed (seventh in WNBA) – and decreased points allowed in the paint from 35.4 to 33.8.

The results are reflected in the final score. The Mercury’s last two games marked the second and third time this season they have held an opponent under 70 points.

As Phoenix starts to prove it can win games on the defensive side of the ball, an increasingly balanced scoring attack has the offense humming entering the latter half of the season. Something’s going right when Mercury center Brittney Griner has to take only seven shots in an 80-point team performance.

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“Everyone wanted it to just click right out of the gates, but unfortunately that’s not life,” Griner said. “So I think we did a really good job as a team working on different ways teams are going to double, coming in low-side or high-side, on the dribble, on the catch and which way we want to move and to get out of it. And shoutout to my teammates knocking down their shots.”

Team basketball was on full display Thursday at Footprint Center. Sophie Cunningham dished a career-high seven assists, and both Shey Peddy (20 points) and Megan Gustafson (12 points) achieved season-highs in scoring off the bench. Peddy poured in 13 points in the final 11 minutes to help seal the game and tied a career high with five 3-pointers.

“I just tried to be open and be a target for BG,” Peddy said. “I am just happy that I am making the shots.”

The Mercury bench, led by Peddy, Gustafson and Sug Sutton, made a major statement in Thursday’s win with 45 points – the most points scored by a bench in the league this season. The Mercury were also the first team to have three bench players score in double figures this season, and it marked only the seventh time the feat was accomplished in franchise history.

“Coming off the bench, our job is to bring the energy, no matter what we can do,” Gustafson said. “Whether it’s defense, scoring, getting stops, whatever it is, we have to bring energy, and I tried to do that today.”

The two games since the All-Star break – a victory against the 16-6 Connecticut Sun, currently in second place, and a resounding, 18-point victory over the Sky without Diana Taurasi – seem to point towards the Mercury not giving up on the season.

With players like LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark headlining next year’s draft, tanking for a high pick is certainly still an option for the Mercury, currently tied for the second-worst record in the WNBA at 6-15. However, if the effort from the last two games is to be believed, tanking doesn’t seem to be on the front office’s mind at this time.

Blue doubled down on this sentiment by reiterating her goal is to make the team better.

“We are not where we want to be,” Blue said. “But I feel like we are going in the right direction.”

The Mercury have the chance to continue their current win streak Sunday on the road against the 11-9 Washington Mystics at 10 a.m.

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.