The Phoenix Mercury won six straight games and rapidly approach a top-four seed, but are they for real?
Thanks in large part to a six-game winning streak, the Mercury sits at 15-10, fifth in the WNBA. The team is now just a half-game back of Minnesota for the fourth seed and 4.5 games back of the first seed. Winners in eight of nine games, Phoenix’s last loss came on July 11th.
That loss occurred before the mid-season break where Phoenix sent five players to the Olympic Games. Three of those Olympians, won Gold for Team U.S.A.: Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Brittney Griner. The only other team to send as many Olympians: the Seattle Storm.
Fortunately, this Mercury team grinded out the last two months admirably after some bad luck during the start of the season. Constant, nagging injuries sidelined 39-year-old Diana Taurasi, who only played in 13 of 25 games thus far. She plays such a critical role in Phoenix’s success, so they faltered without her and it showed in the standings.
While Seattle struggles through fatigue from playing and traveling so much in a short period of time, the Mercury has not faced the same effects.
Olympic Fatigue? Not for the Mercury
Phoenix transitioned beautifully through the Olympic break to play its best basketball of the year. Through six games, the Mercury averaged 87.2 PPG which is second in the WNBA while allowing 72.8 PPGA. That created a +14.3 point differential to start the second half. Only Connecticut stands close at +12.8 after also starting 6-0 following a disappointing Commissioner’s Cup loss to Seattle.
Since the return to action, Phoenix has the best offensive rating (108.1) and is the most efficient shooting team in the league. The Mercury recorded a 54.9% effective field goal percentage and 58.5% true shooting percentage during August. Furthermore, Phoenix shoots at the highest percentage (48.8%), collects the most rebounds (41.7), and sits at second in assists (21.5) over this span.
The Mercury offense has just been otherworldly on the backs of its three All-Stars, Taurasi, Diggins-Smith, and Griner. Both Griner and Taurasi maintained their performance despite battling injuries. Taurasi battled to stay on the court every game since the restart. And Griner, who should receive more attention as an MVP candidate, is still dominating.
But the most credit for the Mercury streak belongs to Diggins-Smith. The Mercury star came into her own over the last few games in her second year with the franchise. Her stats over the last three games speak for themselves: 26.3 PPG and 6.3 APG on 57% shooting, 60% 3-PT shooting, and 20/24 free throws. She has been a star for the Mercury. Efficient from everywhere, playmaking for herself and others, and attacking the basket to get to the free-throw line at an exceptional rate.
Her performances came during three Mercury wins by 15, 27, and 16. Even after a scary injury to Griner in the first matchup against New York, Phoenix took care of business two nights later.
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Only Way to Be the Best is to Beat the Best
But one question still remains for a team that seems to be atop the league and on fire. The only doubt for the orange-hot Mercury: how will this squad play against legit competition?
While any winning streak is impressive, the level of competition over Mercury’s six-game winning streak is meager. Phoenix has not faced a team in the top half of the standings during the dominant stretch. They collected wins over 12-seed Indiana, 11-seed Atlanta twice, nine-seed Washington, and twice more over eight-seed New York. The wins do not stand out as top-notch victories with Indiana and Atlanta at the bottom of the W, and the Mystics and Liberty each in a losing battle for the final playoff spot.
Questions still exist for whether or not this team can compete with the best in the league, especially when the pressure is high. The Mercury only won three games over top-four teams. All of which came before the break with one against Minnesota during the Lynx’s putrid 0-4 start to the season.
The Mercury did put together two great wins over the second-seed Las Vegas Aces and third-seed Seattle Storm. Then, Phoenix lost its final game before the break and has not proved it against top competition before or since.
Outside of those two wins and the aforementioned Minnesota win, Phoenix is 0-6 against the top-four teams in the league.
Phoenix’s Final Exam
The real test awaits the Mercury to close their season: Sept. 11th vs. Connecticut, Sept. 17th at Seattle, and Sept. 19th vs. Las Vegas.
Seven games remain before the playoffs, and except for one game, Phoenix’s schedule is highly favorable. The toughest matchup presents itself on Tuesday, Aug. 31st at home vs. streaking Chicago after the Sky took down Seattle in back-to-back games to extend their winning streak to three. Then, the Mercury faces Atlanta once and Indiana twice before test days.
Phoenix could very well position itself for a 10 game winning streak ahead of its final exam against the top-three seeds. Quiz number one comes Tuesday in the Valley, though. Chicago takes its own streak to the Footprint Center at 7 p.m. ET on NBATV with each team trying to prove itself as a championship contender.
Check out whether the Mercury has what it takes against Chicago. We will all see if Phoenix has what it takes to win it all through the final seven games of the WNBA’s regular season.
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