Short-handed Mercury overcome by Lynx -- again
PHOENIX – We know whose team this is.
We also know who coaches it, and we’re acutely aware of who has checked in as the headline-grabbin’ rookie.
In order of these Phoenix Mercury references, the answers are Diana Taurasi, Corey Gaines and Brittney Griner.
But if you’re wondering about ownership of the Mercury, that answer was delivered -- again -- on Sunday at US Airways Center. By knocking off Phoenix 82-77, the Minnesota Lynx now have defeated the Mercury four times this season and nine times in a row, dating to Aug. 11, 2011.
The loss was the Mercury’s fourth in the last five games and dropped their season record to 9-8 with one game remaining before the All-Star break. That next game, by the way, will be Wednesday night -- against the Lynx in Minnesota.
With the through-17-games result not exactly dovetailing with roster-inspired expectations, Gaines was asked to define his team near the midway juncture.
“Well, if I could get my whole team out there, I could give you an answer,” he said. “I haven’t had my full-force team out there.”
On Sunday, the Mercury were working without Griner (left knee sprain) for the fifth time this season; they’re 2-3 when the 6-foot-8 former Baylor star -- who like Taurasi was selected to the All-Star team -- is missing.
Gaines also didn’t have the services of Penny Taylor, whose repaired knee was fit enough for a 16-point effort in a victory over the L.A. Sparks on Thursday but required some rest after her first six games back this season.
“Penelope, she’s my rock,” Gaines said. “It’s tough when she’s not out there. She makes good decisions with the ball. When she’s out there, you have to watch her.”
Instead, the Lynx (13-3) had more eyes on Taurasi, who had 26 points but went just 8 for 24 from the field -- including 3 of 14 from 3-point range -- and had five turnovers.
MEETING YOUR MATCHUP: The Mercury defense (more on its season-long struggle later) was pretty respectable on Sunday ... well, after the team had scored or on post-dead-ball possessions.
In those situations, Phoenix played a matchup zone that kept Minnesota (reasonably) under control. For the game, the Lynx were a frosty 16 of 41 against a zone that Gaines reinstalled two days before the triumph over the Sparks.
“We decided we’re going to go all the way back to the way we used to play,” he said, “so we just had to refigure how to play the zone without it being illegal, because it was different before.”
Right, with this being the WNBA’s first season under the new illegal-defense rules, the more conventional zones are pretty much out, so zones with heavy matchup principles are in.
Gaines looked at some NBA video regarding structure and rotations before committing to the zone.
“It makes teams hesitant,” he said of this particular defense. “If you’re hesitant on anything, you don’t do it as well.”
Unfortunately, the zone can’t prevent the opposition from scoring in transition after a turnover. And on Sunday, the Mercury coughed the ball up 10 times in the second half and began the third quarter with three live-ball miscues that were converted into Lynx layups.
“You can’t have turnovers against that team,” Gaines said, “because what happened was the turnovers gave them a chance to get in rhythm, and the zone prevents them from getting in rhythm.”
BONNER BOUNCES BACK: After missing 32 of 39 shots in the Mercury’s first three games against the Lynx this season, Bonner was 6 of 14 on Sunday and finished with 23 points. Unfortunately, she was only 1 of 5 in the fourth quarter.
“I think we’ve had a pretty good first half,” Bonner said when asked about the Mercury’s season to date. “We have a lot of new people, and considering the injuries and everything ..."
FIRST OF ALL: Taurasi is leading the league in scoring as the break approaches, averaging 22.2 points per game. And collectively, the Mercury were in their familiar No. 1 spot for points per game at 84.31 before Sunday’s tilt.
Working rim-adjacent on offense, Griner leads the league in field-goal percentage at 68.9.
'E' TICKET HOLDERS: That ‘E’ stands for efficiency, a category that finds Taurasi (21.3) at No. 3 among all WNBA players. Candace Parker of the Sparks is No. 1 at 22.8.
Griner is eighth at 18.8, one spot behind fellow rookie Elena Della Donne (18.9) of the Chicago Sky.
RANK PESSIMISM: In what hardly qualifies as historically unexpected, the Mercury entered the 17th game of this season as the WNBA’s worst in two defensive categories.
The 85.69 points per game they surrendered through 16 games ranked 12th among the league’s dozen teams; Phoenix also ranked 12th in defending the 3-point line, allowing foes to knock in 37 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
But the deep-shooting news isn’t any better on offense, as the Mercury ranked 12th with a miserable success rate of 30 percent.
TRENDING NOWADAYS: Although Griner’s field-goal conversion rate is commendable, her 68.9 percent mark at home is countered by a less spectacular 54.5 percent average away from US Airways Center.
Flip that script for Candice Dupree, who drops 53.7 percent of her shots on the road but only 45 percent in Phoenix.
Another Mercury player struggling at home is Bonner, whose average of 17.2 points per game on the road is four points higher than she achieves at home.
And as expected, any Taurasi struggle translates to difficulty for the Mercury. When Phoenix prevails, “D” is providing 25.7 points per victory; she’s getting only 17.7 points in defeats.