The WNBA regular season is a wrap, and with the playoffs beginning today, it’s time to put up or shut up for the Phoenix Mercury.
They finished with a 20-14 record in this up-and-down season but closed the campaign with a four-game winning streak to secure the team’s first 20-win season since 2015 and earn the No. 5 seed in the playoffs, which brings with it home court in the first-round single-elimination game today against the No. 8 seed Dallas Wings. Phoenix went 2-1 against the Wings this season.
The Mercury have advanced through the single-elimination rounds both in 2016 and 2017 and will have to do so again to push deep into the playoffs. Awaiting the Mercury on Aug. 23 should they knock off Dallas will be another single-elimination game — this time on the road — against the No. 4 seed Connecticut Sun (21-13). Phoenix went 2-1 against the Sun this season as well.
But looking at today’s matchup, it’s a tale of two teams moving in different directions entering the postseason.
Phoenix struggled to find its footing through the month of July after power forward Sancho Lyttle’s season-ending knee injury, dropping back in the tight standings after a strong start to the 2018 season. But the team settled into a rotation that slid DeWanna Bonner over to the four and promoted Stephanie Talbot to the starting lineup, closing August at 5-2.
Dallas is a different story, limping into the postseason with a 15-19 record. The Wings were 14-9 on Jul. 19 but dropped nine straight from there and 10 of their last 11 to close the season, barely edging out the Las Vegas Aces for the final playoff seed. Despite an MVP-worthy effort all year from center Liz Cambage, who led the league with 23 points per game to go along with 9.7 rebounds (second) and 1.7 blocks (fifth), and another terrific season from point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (third in assists, 6.2; 10th in scoring, 17.9), the team as a whole could never seem to pull in one direction.
The turmoil reached its peak on Aug. 12. After the team dropped its eighth straight, head coach Fred Williams and Wings’ CEO Greg Bibb engaged in a shouting match outside the locker room, leading to Williams’ dismissal one week before the end of the season. He was replaced by assistant coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
In assessing this matchup, the Mercury will have one pressing concern — stopping Cambage. At 6’8, she spent all season smashing opponents on the interior. Well, all but one. While she averaged 23 points on 58.9-percent field goal shooting against the league as a whole, she averaged just 13.7 points on 44.1-percent shooting against Brittney Griner and the Mercury. If she stays out of foul trouble, the 6’9 Griner neutralizes Cambage’s formidable size advantage and improves Phoenix’s prospects for a win drastically. Dallas’ lone win over Phoenix came when the Mercury were reeling in July and forced to play without Diana Taurasi, lost in the first quarter due to illness.
As for Dallas, they will have to contend with the Mercury’s Big Three, who closed the season on a roll.
Taurasi was stellar all season, finishing tied for third in the league in scoring (20.7 points) and fourth in assists (5.3) and becoming the first player to rank in the top four for both points and assists since she was second in both categories in 2013. She also claimed two of the three Western Conference Player of the Month awards this season, taking home the honors in both June and August. But Taurasi’s shift to getting her teammates more involved down the stretch was one of the most significant factors in the Mercury’s late surge. She still averaged 19.3 points during the four-game win streak but upped her assists per game to nine, including back-to-back games of 14, which set and then tied her career high. Those extra looks to teammates rounded out the Phoenix offense, making the role players much more dangerous and the offense as a whole less predictable.
Griner asserted herself as well, posting a 33-point, 18-rebound, 7-block game against the No. 2 seed Atlanta Dream on Aug. 17 in a game pivotal to playoff seeding. Griner, the WNBA’s blocks leader and sixth-leading scorer, needs to be firing on all cylinders as the playoffs open up, and her efforts on the glass especially down the stretch bode well.
The third member of the band, Bonner, has been rock solid of late. She’s scored 20 or more points in eight of the last 10 games and despite giving up multiple dozens of pounds to opponents every night, has done work on the boards. Five of her seven double-doubles on the season came in the team’s final nine games, and the 16 rebounds she ripped down against Atlanta last Friday was a season high. As a result of her strong play, Bonner was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for Aug. 13-19.
Taurasi, Griner, and Bonner became the highest scoring trio in WNBA history this season with 1,967 combined points, surpassing the previous mark of 1,842 by Mercury players Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, and Le’coe Williams in 2008. But they can’t be the only ones chipping in. Receiving contributions from players like Talbot, who scored a career-high 18 points in the season finale despite breaking her nose, and Briann January, who finished as the league leader in 3-point percentage (47 percent), makes the team that much more dangerous.
As the Mercury embark on their push for the franchise’s fourth title, there is cautious optimism surrounding the team’s chances. After all, only five games separate the No. 2 seed Dream from the No. 7 seed Minnesota Lynx. It’s that tight. And with arguably the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball, Taurasi, owning an 11-0 record in winner-take-all games over her WNBA career, Phoenix is in prime position to put its best foot forward in the 2018 playoffs.