Story and photos by Devin Millington, November 2016 Issue.
The Phoenix Mercury’s 20th season was dubbed “Out 4 Redemption” and with Diana Taurasi returning from her “vacation” last season, the Mercury seemed poised to return to championship
According to the 14th annual wnba.com GM survey, the Mercury received 58 percent of the votes as the team most likely to win the 2016 WNBA Championship. Most agreed, as the Mercury’s starting line-up was identical to their 2014 Championship season.
The roster, stacked with all-star talent, seemed unstoppable on paper. Then something happened; the season started.
A Disastrous Start
After the Mercury dropped its first two (road) games, the mood in the arena for their first home game was pensive, yet jubilant. Most assumed the mighty Mercury would win their home opener, but they were wrong, as the Mercury dropped their first two home games as well.
Sloppy play, inconsistent effort and a defense resembling that of a sieve made victory impossible. It was shocking that the Mercury, so full of talent, started the season at 0-4.
Frustration began to take hold on the court. Fans started grumbling online with complaints of low energy, high turnovers and questionable coaching as key reasons for the team’s poor performance.
Finally, the first victory came against Washington (a team that failed to make the 2016 playoffs). Interestingly, the Mercury failed to earn a victory against a playoff team until June 12, against the Chicago Sky. Still, nobody was ready to throw in the towel.
An International Intermission
As the season wore on, the Mercury was unable to sustain any kind of streak. Two wins followed by a couple of losses, followed by another win, then a loss. Roster adjustments were made, but the inconsistency remained.
It didn’t help that Penny Taylor missed nine games prior to the Olympic break with a hip injury.
The 2016 Olympic Games split the WNBA season with a month off from July 23 to Aug. 24, but WNBA teams were not equally affected. The LA Sparks had only one player, Serbia’s Ana Dabovic, making the trip to Rio. And the Connecticut Sun had no Olympians. Conversely, the Phoenix Mercury had six players representing five countries in Rio – the most of any team in the WNBA.
Once Taurasi, Griner, Taylor (Australia), Marta Xargay, (Spain), Sonja Petrovic (Serbia) and Lindsey Harding (Belarus), returned from the Summer Games, the Mercury put up an impressive streak of three consecutive wins. But the three losses they team followed the streak up with made the playoff push all the more difficult. However, on Sept.16 the team clinched their fourth consecutive playoff berth, the 11th in franchise history.
The Mercury entered the 2016 playoff race as the eighth seed and was considered an underdog throughout their run. The team’s first opponent was the strong, but equally inconsistent, Indiana Fever. While they had home-court advantage, they didn’t have Taurasi who scored a team-high 20 points. Five Mercury players put up double digits, but it was the team’s defense, that held the Fever’s scoring to just 37 percent, that secured the win.
A few days later, the Mercury traveled to Madison Square Garden to challenge the No. 3 seed, New York Liberty. The Mercury’s defense offense shot a perfect 24 for 24 from the free throw line – and it certainly didn’t hurt that Taylor and Taurasi put on a shooting clinic from behind the arc. The Mercury impressively shot their way into the WNBA semifinals.
Despite losing to the Minnesota Lynx three times during the regular season, many believed that the Mercury was peaking at the right time as they went into the best of five series. The Mercury was now faced with the daunting task of upsetting the Lynx on their home court, a feat achieved against both the Indiana Fever and the New York Liberty. But the Lynx proved too powerful on their home court and easily dispatched the Mercury by double digits in both games.
The Mercury returned home Oct. 2 in the hopes of extending its season and staving off Taylor’s looming retirement. The game was evenly contested in the first half and the team’s energy was high. When the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles got into early foul trouble, and subsequently had to ride the pine for significant chunks of time, the Mercury’s offense took full advantage. The Mercury went into half time trailing by only one point, 38-39.
The second half started with Fowles quickly earning more bench time after picking up her fourth foul, but this time the Mercury failed to capitalize on it and the Lynx went on a 6-0 run. Frustration mounted, especially with the officiating. Uncharacteristically, Dewanna Bonner was called for a technical foul in the middle third quarter. Minnesota’s lead grew steadily.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, the Mercury was down by 20 points and fans slowly started to make their way to the exits. At the three-minute mark Alex Harden entered the game for Taylor, and as Taylor walked to the bench, tears streaming down her face, the X-Factor rose to give her a much-deserved standing ovation. She gave each of her teammates an emotional goodbye hug, crying as she squeezed each player.
The 2016 season was indeed the rollercoaster ride. And like all rides, it had to come to an end. Surely fans will jump back on this ride next summer, even though it won’t be the same without the Mercury’s “Penny from Heaven.”