‘It’s a lot’: Phoenix Mercury battle mental challenges to endure grueling compressed schedule

Natasha Cloud and the Phoenix Mercury players show solidarity during an intense stretch of games, playing four times in six nights over the past week. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Natasha Cloud walked into the postgame press room at Footprint Center after Monday’s loss to the Connecticut Sun with three designer bags, but only had one in hand. Asked about her mental state, the Phoenix Mercury guard said, “Oof,” looked at teammate Kahleah Copper, laughed, turned her head back to the reporter and said, “You see these designer bags under my eyes.”

The Mercury traveled to Dallas the following day to face the Wings Wednesday, their fourth game in six nights. Phoenix finished 2-2 in the condensed stretch after defeating Dallas 104-96, tallying a season high in points, and sit sixth in the Western Conference with a 10-10 record.

The Mercury aren’t alone – many WNBA teams have endured a compressed schedule to account for the Olympic break from July 21 to Aug. 14.

“It’s a lot,” Cloud said. “I jokingly said … this is the adult version of AAU basketball. When we were kids, we would play three games in one day, and you’d be exhausted. I feel the same way right now. I hope that moving forward, we make a decision to just extend a few weeks of the season, especially during an Olympic year. It just protects players – mentally, emotionally, physically.

“We have a game yesterday (Sunday) at noon, we get a little bit of rest and then we’re back at it again today. The tolls that it takes on your body with playing 30-plus minutes, that’s a lot. You’re not going to hear any complaints for us. We still had to show up today. We got 40 minutes in us every single night, but it does definitely take a toll mentally, emotionally and physically on our bodies.”

First-year Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts tied the team’s win total from last season through only 17 games after defeating the Sparks last Friday in the first matchup of the four-game stretch. Tibbetts served as an assistant coach for 12 years in the NBA but understands his new role requires greater mental stability in demanding times.

“Three home games in four nights, that typically doesn’t happen,” Tibbetts said Monday. “I think this is part of being a head coach again: the feelings that you feel after tough losses and big wins. As an assistant coach, you make suggestions, and as a head coach, you make decisions that ultimately affect people’s playing times and shots and stuff like that, so I think my mental approach is just be as consistent as I can, wins, losses, try not to get too high, try not to get too low.”

Monday’s loss came off a back-to-back set after suffering defeat to the Indiana Fever in front of an energetic crowd with Caitlin Clark’s first WNBA game in the Valley.

Mercury guard Sug Sutton believes the mental strain of the quick turnaround affected Phoenix’s play in their two-game skid.

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“Just with being tired, we are kind of getting mentally to the point where we are not picking up full court and we are just not having that full pressure that we always have,” Sutton said. “So I think it just comes down to who is mentally tough and who can do the dirty work when everybody is tired. Everyone in the league is going through the same thing, so it’s all about who comes out the toughest, and I think that’s something we have to take into account.”

The Fever and Sun shot a combined 45.9% from the field against the Mercury. Phoenix also failed to secure boards, totaling an average of 23 rebounds in the two games, nearly 10 less than their season’s average of 32.6.

After Wednesday’s morning shootaround, Sutton expressed that unity was the antidote needed to maintain stability.

“I think mentally it could be a little bit tiring, but we just come in and don’t make excuses, and we just get to work every single day,” Sutton said. “So every day we are just focusing on us and just sticking together – I think that is one of the biggest things within this process and having back-to-back games. It’s going to be hard but as long as we play together, stick together, we are going to be good.”

The team heard Sutton. The Mercury shot a season-high 55.4% from the field against the Wings. Copper finished with 34 points on 70% shooting, earning a league-leading sixth 30-point performance. Griner added 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting, and Cloud earned her fifth double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 assists.

After securing their third road win of the season, Tibbetts reflected on the team’s recent performances and was encouraged by their attitude.

“I’m just really impressed,” Tibbetts said about his team’s mental fortitude during the four-game stretch. “That Indiana loss was probably, if you were to ask our group, the toughest loss of the season … as far as just execution down the stretch. We were up seven with three-and-a-half (minutes) to go. Those are games with a veteran group you want to get, so that one hurt.

“You go into the next night kind of beat up with players out and probably the first time that we’ve kind of questioned what we were doing down the stretch and we battled against Connecticut. We’ve struggled on the road and for us to come out and compete at the level that we did tonight (Wednesday), I think shows a level of maturity and I’m excited about the second half of the season.”

Although the schedule is taxing, Copper recognizes the reality is many people wish they were in her position.

“I’m blessed for this to be my job,” Copper said. “I wake up every day and I get paid to play. I’m surrounded by a great group.”

For Mercury forward Kiki Herbert Harrigan, the four games in six nights “is a part of the game,” and the focus remains the same for the Mercury no matter the challenge.

“Just staying up, taking care of our bodies and locking in every night and try to come out with the win,” Harrigan said.

Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Joshua Heron expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Heron served as a sports reporter for The Hilltop, Howard University News Service, and social-impact brand FISLL as an undergrad at Howard University. He also worked as a freelance reporter for Capital News. His interview series, “Wagwan In Life,” hosts people across multiple professions. Heron produced “Championship Culture,” a documentary highlighting the Howard women’s basketball team. He was a 2023 National Geographic HBCU Media Scholar and former My Brother’s Keeper Fellow.