The Phoenix Mercury failed to capitalize on their opportunity to be the first team in the WNBA to clinch a playoff berth when they lost to the Washington Mystics 91-81 in Phoenix.
The Mercury intensity seemed fine early in the game and I was very impressed with the defensive focus as they held the Mystics to just 16 points through the first 8 minutes before the wheels fell off and Washington hit a couple of open three's to take a 21 to 14 lead into the 2nd quarter. Phoenix had no three point attempts or fast break points in the first 10 minutes.
Phoenix came back early in the second after Le'Coe Willingham hustled to save a ball tipped out of bounds off a missed Ohlde free throw which lead to a Taurasi three. This sparked a 8-0 run to give Phoenix a 25-23 point lead but they weren't able to sustain the momentum and battled most of the next two quarters to stay within 5 to 7 points.
Going into the fourth the Mercury had tied the game at 60 and everyone in the building assumed Phoenix would close strong as they have all season at home but instead it was the Mystics who used 15-5 run starting from about the 7 minute mark to break the game open.
Washington had a 10 point lead with 3 minutes to go but the Mercury were able to cut that to 4 within a minute and the game seemed set for a come from behind win until Alana Beard hit a 3 point shot which was followed by a wide open missed corner three from Penny Taylor.
I asked Penny if she's the type of player to lose sleep over that miss to which she said, "There's too many shots in my life to lose sleep but yeah, I'm disappointed. Diana set me up really well. She penetrated hard and drew the defense. That's maybe a sign of maybe not being quite in the flow yet but definitely I'll be working on that."
With just 32 seconds left and a 6 point lead to over come, Taurasi was hit on the elbow on a three point attempt but the foul wasn't called. The rebound lead to a Mystics run out and while on the other end Diana let her feelings about the call be known to the officials which earned her two quick T's and the ejection. After the game Taurasi was clearly frustrated by the non-call but once again simply smiled and called the officials the best anywhere as is her norm when she's trying hard to not say anything that might earn her a fine.
It's a toss up whether the Mercury lost this game by taking a season worst 26 to 46 beating on the glass; by failing to knock down shots in the fourth quarter (37% FG) while getting smoked by the Mystics on the other end (75% FG); or by my personal choice, the inability to regain the offensive rhythm and flow that team had earlier in the season.
Sporting a fading shiner around her nose and right eye from the recent battles with the Silver Stars, Diana Taurasi talked about the reasons for the loss, "We really couldn't get on a roll. When you get out rebounded that bad it's hard to get going the other way and get good shots and make things happen for each other. That was the thing I thought hurt us the most. They hit shots when they needed to and they made plays."
Penny Taylor's pro volleyball playing, bar owning, Brazilian husband was sitting courtside for this game. He was described to me as the "perfect man" (sorry fellas). Penny had some interesting insight into the team's level of play lately. "A lot of it was just us being a little bit cluttered, not great spacing, not getting that running game going. We did in patches but not as much as we like to do." Penny went on to again mention the spacing and the team standing around watching each other.
On the offensive end that's been a consistent theme for the past 8 or 10 games and it's shown in the record. The Mercury are a .500 team over their last 8 games. It's not clear if that's a result of Taylor and Ohlde working back into the rotations or the seeming lack of role clarity and chemistry in the back court that I've observed and mentioned before.
Click here to listen to the full Penny Taylor locker room interview.
Defensively of course the Mercury continue to struggle defending bigs. I asked coach Gaines about this pattern of other team's post players putting up impressive numbers but he didn't seem to agree, "No, I wouldn't say impressive. Langhorne had 19, I guess that is a lot for her....I don't know." Crystal Langhorne came into the game averaging 11 ppg.
Looking back at the box scores we can definitely see a trend:
- Mystics: Crystal Langhorne 19 pts vs avg or 12 ppg
- Sky: Shyra Ely 26 pts vs 6 ppg
- Silver Stars: Sofia Young 29 and 25 pts vs 18 ppg
- Fever: Jessica Moore 19 pts vs 5 ppg
I understand that Gaines might not want to publicly acknowledge the shortcomings of his team and its players but he does have options.
The Mercury front court of Tangela Smith and LeCoe Willingham just aren't getting it done on the defensive end. Despite leading the league in blocked shots (and becoming only the 4th player in WNBA history to record 500 blocks and 2000 rebounds) Smith simply cannot match up with bigger and strong centers. Le'Coe general does not play good positional defense and can often be found out of position on rotations and is prone to getting beaten off the dribble consistently by the league's better power forwards.
Le'Coe and Bonner both are averaging 21 minutes per game but Bonner has a team leading 6.1 rpg compared to Willingham's 3.8 rpg. We've seen Bonner on the floor with Smith and Taylor in the front court to close games recently. It might be time to start the rookie and give her about 10 more minutes per game.
Ohlde has shown to be a much better on ball defender at the center position and her 51% shooting is indicative of her offensive skill in the paint. Smith meanwhile is providing good weak side defense and leads the league in three point percentage with 47%. We did see Smith and Ohlde on the floor together for a time in this game and I would expect to see more of that. Nicole is only grabbing 2.1 rebounds in her 12 minutes of play but watching her impact it is clear that she's able to keep possessions alive with tips and prevent the other team's big from reaching over the top to take boards away which happens frequently to Le'Coe.
Willingham has beautiful footwork in the post and a great touch around the rim as indicated by her 54% shooting but her defensive and rebounding liabilities suggest the need for more of her minutes to go to Bonner and Ohlde.
There is one more reason for the loss that's never popular with the losing team...the Mystics simply played a great game which they did. They came in wanting to dey the Mercury's three point shooting and to limit the Phoenix fast break opportunities.
Mystics guard Lindsey Harding said, "Two's don't hurt as bad as three's and we had a lot of help from our post (players) jumping out on screens and making them drive."
The Mercury did end up with 19 three point attempts for the game which is right at their season average and the 37% connection rate was only 3 points below par but only 4 of those attempts came in the 1st or 4th quarters which saw the Mercury outscored by a score of 35 to 52. The Mystics did a great job disrupting the long outlet pass and were able to run the ball themselves at times. They ended up with 11 fast break points to the Mercury's 10.
Next up for the Mercury as the surging LA Sparks in Los Angeles on Thursday. I believe our own Mike Lisboa is plans on being at Staples Center for that which does have playoff implications for both teams.The Mercury then return home for a game Saturday which is 1 of only 3 home games left in the regular season.