Disappointed Phoenix Mercury players Bonner, Willingham and Smith watch as their team loses to the Minnesota Lynx. Phoenix, AZ July 22, 2009. Photo by Max Simbron
The Phoenix Mercury locker room was unusually empty after losing 99-86 to the Minnesota Lynx, except for All-Star Cappie Pondexter, seated alone in her corner spot. Knees and ankles wrapped in ice, Cappie spoke for the team, "The lack of energy in the first half kind of put them in control. We came out fighting in the second half, but it was a little too late."
The home team only had 8 players in uniform with Diana Taurasi (suspension) and Nicole Ohlde and Penny Taylor (injuries) unavailable. Add that to an incredibly hot shooting night for the Lynx -- who hit 57% from three -- and it was a game tailor-made for excuses and yet Cappie offered none.
That's what surprised me most about this game: how dissatisfied the team is with itself. This is a group that expects to win every night and even when it does, isn't happy unless they run at peak performance for four quarters. Cappie rated the first half of the season a "C," saying that the team needs to be more consistent on every possession and fight harder for 40 minutes each game. The Mercury locker room is typically a happy place but even after a win it is never filled with "happy talk." This is a team on a mission and it shows.
That lack of complacency and the determination to get better starts at the top. GM Ann Meyer-Drysdale said this about the 12-5 Western Conference-leading Mercury, "This is a team that's very talented. It's very much together, but at times when we look good for a quarter, why aren't we playing that way for all four quarters...That's the expectations they have of each other."
You might expect to hear that from a team struggling at the bottom of the standings, but the Mercury go into the All-Star break with a .706 winning percentage, which is the best in the franchise's history at this point in a season. You bring back a healthy Ohlde and Taylor in a couple of weeks and this team creates deadly match-up problems for the opposition with a versatile front court that can score from anywhere and a back court tandem of Johnson and Pondexter who push the pace, distribute the ball and put up their own numbers.
The only weakness on the roster is the lack of a backup wing player who can do more than shoot stand-up threes. Kelly Mazzante might be a nice sharp shooter off the bench but her zero points, zero assists, zero rebounds and zero 4th quarter minutes as a starter showed again where this team's roster is weakest.
As for tonight's game, let's face it ... playing without Taurasi and Ohlde against a good team like the Lynx is a tall order. Throw in a season-high performance (17 points) from Tasha Humphry, who was just picked up off waivers from Washington, and timely shooting from Roneeka Hodges, and I thought the Mercury did well to keep it competitive for most of the game.
Trailing 34-45 going into the second half, the Mercury were forced to use all sorts of unfamiliar line-ups, including extended minutes for DeWanna Bonner at small forward and a back court tandem of Tameka Johnson and her regular backup at point, Ketia Swanier. Swanier and Bonner both brought the energy that starters Le'Coe Willingham and Kelly Mazzante lacked and helped Cappie cut the lead to within 2 with only 30 seconds to go. A beautiful turn-around jumper from Lynx All-Star center Nicky Anosike was followed by a quick bucket off a turnover on the inbound pass by Brooke Smith. Those four quick points killed the momentum of a 34-point quarter.
The Lynx came out strong in the fourth and slowly extended their 6-point lead to 15 points and were never threatened again.
The Mercury finished with 16 turnovers, which is not unexpected given the number of minutes unfamiliar lineups were forced to play together. What hurt more was the 24 - 6 advantage the Lynx had in second chance points. Tangela Smith and Le'Coe Willingham combined for 8 rebounds and were getting killed on the glass, while only rookie DeWanna Bonner was able to make her presence felt with 10 boards. Smith did have a good shooting night, putting up 23 points on 16 attempts, but her lack of mobility and consistent energy hurts this team at times. I look forward to seeing more minutes for Ohlde, Bonner and Taylor who are all better defenders and rebounders than Willingham and Smith, while still being very good scoring threats in their own right.
The Mercury leave town for an extended road trip, playing 5 games in 10 nights, starting Sunday the 26th, the day after the All-Star game. The road trip includes stops in Seattle and Minnesota, who currently sit second and third in the West behind the Mercury. If the Mercury can come through this stretch with two or even three wins, they will be well positioned for the final run into the playoffs, even though they only have 6 more home games left in the season.