X marks optimism for Mercury rise in second half
As they enter the second half of what's been a disappointing season, the X could become a bigger factor than ever for the Phoenix Mercury.
For the record, we're not referring to the fans at U.S. Airways Center, who are saluted by the franchise with the title of "X-Factor." And while the Mercury still need strong support at home, another X could loom larger as they attempt to rally from a 9-9 first half to their season.
X is the name Coach Corey Gaines attaches to a zone defense Phoenix will lean on in an effort to rise higher than its current rank of third in the WNBA's Western Conference.
"We might have found the missing link," Gaines said of a defense that can lead to enough stops to better utilize Phoenix's ability to thrive at the other end of the floor. "We've been working on it at least 20 minutes every practice. When we were really good, people just thought it was because of how we scored. But the zone has been really important to our success."
Gaines, who was referring to the zone defense as important in a past championship run, has adjusted coverage from the 3-2 alignment to conform to the league's new defensive-three-second rule. Now performing as more of a match-up zone than before, the Mercury knocked off the Sparks in Los Angeles during its first use this season and had the mighty Minnesota Lynx on the ropes (before losing) the following game.
"It (zone) takes teams out of what they want to do," Gaines said. "Just for that fact alone, you have to consider using it."
But he didn't use it during a subsequent loss to the Lynx at Minnesota that preceded last weekend's All-Star break.
"I didn't want to show it to them a second time," Gaines said.
This reminds us that the Mercury coach is planning to see the Lynx again … to do so would require a showdown in the postseason. That last defeat was Phoenix's fifth in five games against the Western Conference leaders this season. So, with 16 games remaining, the Mercury can make a degree of the proverbial hay without having to knock off Minnesota.
But the schedule-related good news doesn't end there. Of those 16 season-closing tilts, only four games will be contested against teams that entered the break with winning records.
The post-break schedule beings with a road game on Thursday at Seattle (7-10); then comes five consecutive home games.
Having moved to point guard, Diana Taurasi has played into MVP contention, leading the league in scoring while climbing near the top in assists. With the veteran superstar playing at that level, Phoenix remains capable of putting together a big second-half surge.
To the bad, veteran Penny Taylor – who had just returned after the lengthy rehabilitation of her left knee – will miss six to eight weeks after surgery on the right knee.
"It's tough," Gaines said of losing Taylor again on the heels of the prolonged absence of rookie center Brittney Griner (balky knee). "We've been dealt some tough cards. We had that streak going, and this (injuries) kind of set us back."
Griner was part of Tuesday's workout and – if the team's medical staff allows it – should return in time to anchor the middle the Mercury X.
"She's great," Gaines said when asked how the 6-foot-8 Griner has operated within the zone. "She gets to roam the paint, get out before she's illegal, defend the post and then hand off to one of the guards if the player she's guarding pops to the top.
"Before we went to the zone, our players had gotten used to have her (Griner) back there. Then they had to adjust. Now that we've changed our defense back to what we did when we were really successful, having her in the middle will make it more effective."
Beyond this tactical upgrade, Gaines is looking for something that – even with the lineup juggling as a key variable – had been missing over 18 games.
"Good health is No. 1," he said, "but just getting consistent is right up there. We have to be better at knowing our roles. Then we can get in a nice, little flow … and that should be enough."