Phoenix Mercury rolling to start 2024 WNBA season in Brittney Griner’s absence

Kahleah Copper is averaging 31.3 points per game for the Phoenix Mercury and is a key to their strong 2-1 start. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – With uncertainty surrounding the Phoenix Mercury, especially after star center Brittney Griner suffered a toe fracture, the new-look team has surprised many with its strong start.

On Tuesday night, the Phoenix Mercury avenged a season-opening loss to the Las Vegas Aces with a victory in their second meeting to improve to 2-1, marking the team’s first win over the two-time defending WNBA champions since July 2021. The Mercury aim to win a third straight Thursday against the Washington Mystics at Footprint Center.

Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been key to the team’s success in her first season with Phoenix, averaging a WNBA-best 31.3 points per game. In Tuesday’s win, she became the second player in WNBA history to score 35 or more points in back-to-back games.

“I was put in perfect positions,” Copper said after Tuesday’s win. “I’m a competitor. We came in here last week (against the Aces) and we didn’t leave the court hanging our heads. We went about it like we’re going to get right back after it. Shout out to my teammates and my coaches for believing in me and we come on to those hurdles and we’re drawn on plays and I’m just put in a position to make a play”

Copper also made history as the first player to average at least 30 points while shooting above 53 percent from the field and three-point range through the first three games. She joined Maya Moore (105 points in 2014) and Elena Delle Donne (98 in 2015) to start the season with 90 or more points scored with 94 points.

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“My offseason was big,” Copper said Tuesday. “I took pride in being a three-level scorer but I wanted to be able to be more consistent. Before this all happened, seeing this roster and understanding this is who I want to play with.”

During the offseason, first-year Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts watched Copper’s highlights and emphasized the importance of seeing Copper play in a Mercury uniform.

“I keep telling (Kahleah Copper) when we made the trade, I spent a lot of time watching film on her,” Tibbetts said. “And I’m just thankful that she’s in a Mercury jersey, and I get to see her play live every night. The team feels that she’s a hot player right now.

“She’s getting downhill, she’s being extremely aggressive, and we needed every one of them.”

Ranked last in points and rebounds per game last season, the Mercury have improved significantly in both categories as the fifth-best rebounding team (37.5) and the second-best scoring team in the WNBA (88.7). The team also ranks third in three-pointers made per game (12.3).

Inside the paint, without Griner, the Mercury have stepped up in her absence. Phoenix has six players averaging more than four rebounds per game. On the defensive side, the Mercury are fifth in team blocks per game (6) and allow the second-fewest points in the paint (34). Additionally, Phoenix has taken better care of the ball, averaging just 12 turnovers per game.

Griner cheered from the Mercury’s sideline during Saturday’s home opener against the Atlanta Dream and coached Natasha Mack, who is averaging 5 points and 8 rebounds per game in her absence.

“Credit to the group first off, just continuing to believe not hanging their head when BG went down opportunities for others to step up,” Tibbetts said Tuesday.

More importantly, the Mercury’s energy on and off the court has done a 180-degree turn after a disappointing 2023 season that ended with a league-worst 9-31 record.

“It’s like we’ve been together forever,” Copper said Tuesday. “A bunch of competitors. A bunch of jokesters. We’re having fun in these games together. I think that’s where we’re getting our separation.”

The Mercury set a WNBA record in three-pointers made through the first three games of the season with 37. Led by Sophie Cunningham and Sug Sutton, their bench also had a huge night and outscored the Aces bench, 27-2.

“Their effort, their willingness to come in and work every day, we know that we’re a veteran group up front,” Tibbetts said. “We’ve got a lot of young players that are our backup. These are first-time minutes for a lot of them besides (Sug Sutton) and Sophie. (Sophie) has come in and she’s played the two, the three, the four and now she’s playing the five. I’m super happy for Sug, because she hadn’t played great the first two games.

“I’m trying not to play in big minutes. That’s the goal. We want to look at things big picture, to build some current camaraderie and belief in our bench. And I told them, ‘You’re going to get in that game and make an impact,’ and they’ve done that.”

Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer, is averaging 15.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game in her 20th season with the franchise.
In the season opener, Taurasi surpassed Sue Bird as the oldest player to make four or more three-pointers in a game at 41 years and 338 days.

“Being the greatest is lonely. She’s doing things others don’t, or have ever done,” Tibbetts said pregame Tuesday about Taurasi.

Natasha Cloud, one of the best defensive guards in the league, has positively impacted both ends of the court. With 11 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists, she became the t10th player in WNBA history to have a double-double with points and assists.

“Her disposition is she’s a vibe. She’s a competitor, she’s not afraid of anything,” Tibbetts said. “When BG went down, she was like, ‘Coach, I’ll guard fours and fives,’ and last game, she guarded Tina Charles, she guarded A’ja Wilson and she probably would have guarded her more if she hadn’t gotten two quick fouls. What we did defensively, she sets the tone and how physical she is, and she’s not afraid to battle. Eleven points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. That’s some high-level stuff.”

Philadelphia natives Cloud and Copper agree that they match each other’s energy.

“She’s a dog. I’m a dog. We’re going to bring it out of each other,” Cloud said.

Aya Abdeen(she/her)
Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Aya Abdeen expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in communication. Abdeen is a contributing writer of news articles on women’s basketball for The Next. She has also been a part of Blaze Radio and The State Press.