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The Mercury Are Peaking at the Perfect Time

Led by Skylar-Diggins-Smith, the starting lineup is playing its way into what could be a deep postseason run.
Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, and Skylar Diggins-Smith holding flowers

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

The Mercury were likely hoping that the dog days of August would never end. An undefeated, seven-win month helped Phoenix, who entered the Olympic break at just 9–10, vault up the WNBA standings. On Tuesday night, before defeating the surging Sky by 20 points, the franchise clinched a ninth straight playoff appearance.

“We knew that we needed to get better and we needed to do it collectively as a team,” coach Sandy Brondello said Tuesday. “And that’s what we’re doing, playing together at both ends of the floor.”

So much of the Mercury’s recent success stems from the production of their starting five. Phoenix’s opening group—Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, Kia Nurse, Brianna Turner and Brittney Griner—has played 83 minutes together since play resumed in mid-August, putting up a mind-boggling +47.7 net rating over that span, easily the highest of any starting lineup in the league.

Opposing defenses are still struggling to figure out whom among the team’s talented lineup they want to stop, with the aforementioned five-person lineup scoring more than 130 points per 100 possessions in the six most recent games in which they have played together. (Griner missed the Mercury’s Friday win over the Liberty with an ankle injury.)

Diggins-Smith, in particular, said she feels “rejuvenated” after helping Team USA win an Olympic gold. “This is the best basketball I think I’ve ever seen her play,” Brondello said after Tuesday’s win, in which she nearly notched a triple double.

While Taurasi’s return from a chest injury has forced Diggins-Smith to more of an off-ball role on offense, the former Notre Dame star has found no issues carving up opponents from all over the floor. Diggins-Smith has scored at least 17 points in six of her seven games since the break, with the lone time she didn’t coming against the Fever on Aug. 17, when she left the game after just 80 seconds due to an ankle injury.

“Dee talks to me all the time and Dee tells me, ‘Just be a killer. Just do your thing.’ That really puts a lot of confidence in me, in Sandy and in my teammates,” Diggins-Smith said.

After an inconsistent 2020 season (Griner left the Wubble halfway through) and first half of ’21, the Mercury are jelling at the right time. Last year, Diggins-Smith and Griner put up a -1.8 net rating in 12 games. This season, the pair looks increasingly comfortable in league-high 28.7 minutes together, recording a +7.9 per 100 possessions.

The continued development of third-year forward Turner has also been key to Phoenix’s recent surge. Last year, Turner, 25, established herself as one of the league’s best defenders, making the league’s All-Defensive Team after finishing second in blocks per game (2.0) and total blocks (43). While this season she’s been similarly disruptive on that end—most recently showcasing her combination of size, strength and mobility against Chicago when she limited 2016 WNBA MVP Candace Parker to just two points—her growth on the offensive end has been critical.

Turner has scored in double digits five times throughout Phoenix’s win streak, with most of her production coming around the basket. While last season, according to Basketball-Reference, she took just 33.3% of her shots from within zero to three feet from the rim, this year she’s taking 62.8% of her shots from that range, converting more than 63% of her attempts. While Turner is often the fourth option on any given possession—and relies on the creation of others to help her score—her efficiency around the basket further opens up windows for the team’s star guards and center.

This season, only two other trios around the WNBA have played as many minutes together as Turner, Griner and Diggins-Smith, with lineups featuring the three players putting up a higher net rating than the likes of the Storm’s core of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird and the Aces’ most-used trio of A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young.

But unlike Las Vegas and the Lynx, Phoenix’s bench options are more limited. Third-year guard Sophie Cunningham is among Brondello’s most trusted reserves, averaging a team-reserve-high 17.1 minutes per game, but she’s relied upon as a floor-spacer more than an on-ball creator. The result is even more pressure on the team’s core to produce, especially on offense.

The Mercury now find themselves just one game behind the Storm for the No. 3 seed and just three games behind the Aces for the No. 2 seed. While two upcoming games against Indiana and one against the Dream could extend Phoenix’s win streak to double digits, the team’s final three games will likely be more telling, in terms of their postseason threat level.

The Mercury will finish the 2021 regular season with matchups against the Storm, Sun and Aces, all tough tests, and all teams that they’ll have to eventually dispatch if Phoenix wants to make a deep playoff run.

It’s why Diggins-Smith, despite her and her team’s recent tear, is far from satisfied.

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“I like the basketball that we’re playing right now,” she said Tuesday. “I feel good about it, but I feel like we haven’t really done anything yet. We still need to continue to go and finish this road trip strong, and that’s definitely in the front of my mind right now.”

Notes from around the WNBA:

It wasn’t that long ago that the Storm took home the league’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, defeating Connecticut by 22 points in the event’s final. But as Seattle enters the last month of the regular season, the reigning WNBA champions look like a different team than the one that looked so dominant in the first half of the season and again at the end of the Olympic break.

After racing out to an 11–2 start, which would have been the fourth-best win percentage in league history had it held, Seattle enters Thursday’s game against the Liberty just 7–8 in their last 15 contests. And since the regular season resumed Aug. 15, they’ve gone just 2–5, most recently losing to the Lynx and twice to the Sky.

Central to the team’s struggles has been its inability to limit opponents on the perimeter. Seattle was No. 2 in three-point percentage defense at the end of the first half of the season, holding opponents to just 30.7% shooting from behind the arc. But since play resumed, they have been the league’s worst team, allowing opposing offenses to shoot 41.9% from three on nearly 23 attempts per game.

“There’s just something about us and our defense, that players just kinda catch fire,” coach Noelle Quinn said Sunday, after her team’s third consecutive loss.

Quinn attributed some of Seattle’s struggles on the perimeter to not being aggressive or physical enough. But she also noted she “honestly think[s] we get teams’ best.”

The latter point makes sense, considering the talent and résumé of the team’s core. But the Seattle team of 2021 is also different in a number of fronts from past iterations. Vaunted defender Alysha Clark, who led the Storm in total minutes last season is gone, as are Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb, who were No. 5 and No. 6 for Seattle in total minutes in ’20. New key additions Katie Lou Samuelson and Stephanie Talbot are still getting acclimated. The Storm’s Big Three is also being relied upon more this year than they have in ’20, with Stewart, Loyd and Sue Bird all playing more minutes per game this season than they did in the Wubble. It's fair to wonder how fatigue then factors in, especially considering all three of Seattle's Big Three took home gold on Team USA.

Can the Storm still win this year’s title? Absolutely. But their recent losing streak, coupled with the sustained excellence of the Aces and Sun, have made it increasingly unlikely that Seattle will have a double bye, and thus, it will have a tougher path back to the Finals.

Entering the final month of the regular season, it seems as if six of the league’s eight playoff spots have been locked up, with the Lynx and Sky likely to be the fifth and sixth teams to clinch spots in the postseason, respectively. The seventh and eighth spots, however, are still very up for grabs with the Wings, Mystics, Liberty and Sparks all fighting for a berth.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Dallas is the most likely team of the aforementioned four to claim a playoff spot, with a 96% chance of making the playoffs. At 11–15, the Wings have struggled with consistency issues throughout the season, but five of their final six games are at home, two of which are against the lottery-bound Dream.

It’s possible that Dallas will have locked up a berth by Sept. 11, but the Wings host the Liberty that night and end their season at home against the Sparks, in two potential matchups with significant implications.

Washington, New York and Los Angeles all have less than 50% chances of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. While Washington has a 49% chance, the Mystics have a daunting final six games, with two coming against the Lynx and road contests vs. the Sky and Storm still remaining. Questions about Elena Delle Donne’s health also further complicate the team’s stretch run, though Tina Charles has produced at an MVP level this season.

The Liberty, currently clinging to eighth place, started the season fast, winning five of their first six games, but they enter September at just 11–17. New York has only four games left on its schedule, the fewest of the group, with contests against the Storm and Sun making a postseason berth even more challenging. Matchups against the Wings and Mystics will still give the Liberty a chance to make their first postseason appearance since 2017, but it’s hard to be overly optimistic about New York’s chances, considering it has lost five straight games and eight of their last nine.

Coming out of the Olympic break at 6–13, the Sparks went on a four-game win streak to claw back into the playoff picture. But an untimely four-game losing streak has set Los Angeles back in the standings with just five games left to play. While the Sparks are just a ½-game behind the Liberty, they play three of the league’s top teams in their next three games, in Minnesota, Connecticut and Seattle.

Los Angeles will then travel to Atlanta on Sept. 16 and end its season in Dallas against the Wings. They currently have a 16% chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight, so it’s likely that an injury-riddled first half will end up keeping the Sparks on the outside of the playoff picture.

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