The Phoenix Mercury were in a rough patch heading into the All-Star break with a two-game losing streak on their backs.
Starting the second half of the season, Phoenix managed to snag back-to-back wins over the Chicago Sky and Tulsa Shock. The win over Chicago ended in overtime, while Thursday’s win against Tulsa came after the Mercury offense exploded in the third quarter.
Last season, losing wasn’t a term that was often associated with Phoenix. With a 36-6 record, the Mercury’s losses stemmed out of close battles at the beginning of the season against the Shock and San Antonio Stars. The other ones came against division rival Minnesota during the regular and postseason.
It was unclear at the beginning of the 2015 season how the team would cope with the absences of players like Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and (briefly) Brittney Griner. However, Phoenix remained highly optimistic that a championship was, and still is, in their sights even without key players from their championship run.
Taurasi took a year off after her Russian Premier League team paid her to sit out in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. Taylor chose to sit out the 2015 season and not sign as an unrestricted free agent. Griner was suspended for a handful of games, as everyone knows by this point in the season.
Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello has ensured the team has been able to adapt with the shift of players. Brondello made Leilani Mitchell, DeWanna Bonner, Monique Currie and Candice Dupree staples in the starting lineup from the beginning of the season. Once Griner came back, she started every game that she played.
Taurasi, arguably one of the best women to ever play in the WNBA, isn’t an easy player to replace. However, Mitchell and Currie have both proved they’re qualified candidates as starting guards for the Mercury.
After taking a year off from the WNBA following six years with New York, Mitchell signed with the Mercury as a free agent at the start of the season. Since coming to Phoenix, Mitchell has a season average of eight points per game. During her time in New York, Mitchell only put up six points per game through 204 games.
Currie is at 7.8 points per game this season. In 2014 with the Washington Mystics, she scored double-digit points in 18-of-34 games she played in. She’s put up double-digit points in 7-of-18 games she’s played for the Mercury.
While the team was lacking the glue at the start of the season that the championship team of last year had, the team is finding their way and becoming more fluid as the season progresses.
In the end, it comes down to developing a system that allows any combination of veteran and new Mercury players to play together in a seamless fashion.
Now that the season is at its halfway point, the game plans that are currently implemented by Brondello are generally working in the Mercury’s favor.
Before the two losses preceding the All-Star break, the team had their longest win streak of six. During that run the team plowed through opponents that currently linger at the bottom half of the West standings like the San Antonio Stars, Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks.
There’s no doubt that the team has improved, and there’s also no doubt that this team has playoff potential.
When it comes down to the playoffs in the West, Phoenix’s biggest hurdle will be the Minnesota Lynx, as they currently sit 2.5 games back. However, the worries about who will pose a threat in the playoffs are weeks out since standings will shift in that time.