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First game in Nikki Blue era brings hope and competitiveness for Mercury

Hayden Cilley Avatar
June 28, 2023

The Nikki Blue era began Tuesday night in Phoenix.

Although the Mercury’s 77-62 loss wasn’t what was expected, it was a step in the right direction. Forty-eight hours earlier, there might have been blueprints for that direction. Phoenix parted ways with coach Vanessa Nygaard and gave Blue the interim coaching position. Players and the front office seemed ready for change.

In a media scrum on Monday, Mercury general manager Jim Pitman took center stage. Questions revolved around the departure of Nygaard, but Pitman was excited about what Blue brings to this Phoenix squad. 

“Her relationships with the players, her basketball IQ, her knowledge of the game,” Pitman said. “All of those things mattered and I’m really excited for the opportunity for her. I think it’s gonna be a great reset for our team. I feel like there’s a really good vibe around our players right now.”

A background of coaching & playing experience

Blue’s basketball background cannot be understated. She’s a 14-year NCAA women’s assistant coach with programs like Grand Canyon University and Arizona State University, the latter of which came when Blue coached under Charli Turner Thorne. Not to mention, Blue had a stellar playing career at UCLA. She made the all Pac-10 team four straight seasons, along with leading the Bruins to their first conference title in 2006.

Many coaches around the WNBA have their fair share of either coaching or playing experience. Becky Hammon of the Las Vegas Aces and Tanisha Wright of the Atlanta Dream just to name a few. 

Despite a wild weekend for the Mercury, Blue appeared ready for the challenge. Before coming to the practice facility on Monday, she gave an analogy about how ready she felt.

“I feel very prepared and this morning, I was thinking about how a brain surgeon is on his first surgery,” Blue said. “So, they go to school, probably for about eight years and then they study a little bit more and then they’re in the operation room with other doctors to see what’s going on. Then they get their first shot. I feel like I’m ready. I’ve been an assistant coach for 15 years, I’ve been under some fantastic head coaches and I feel like I’m ready. I’ve been groomed for this and it’s finally my opportunity, so I’m gonna make the most of it.”

Stars adjusting from Vanessa Nygaard to Nikki Blue

The transition from Nygaard to Blue wasn’t too drastic. As a matter of fact, the move went rather smoothly. After two days of film and practice, Mercury center Brittney Griner said that the vibes were definitely there.

“The vibe is vibing,” Griner said, chuckling. “It’s going good though. The other day we came in, we had a film session, kind of got what she needed, like a little pro day. Then today, we actually got to work on the court and it was good. Smiles, uplifting, optimism, it was good.”

Through the first 12 games, no one expressed those emotions. On Saturday’s game against Seattle, guard Diana Taurasi sat on the bench in utter disappointment. After Nygaard’s depature and Blue’s swift entrance, Pitman seemed to be elated with what the top assistant brought so quickly. After all, she’s been a part of winning cultures across different collegiate institutions.

“I’ve obviously been observing the team for the whole season at this point,” Pitman said. “I could see body language that it was probably time. I think the feedback so far has been really good based on the energy level at practice today. I’m pleased with where we are and really looking forward to this reset and really a start of a new season for us, so to speak, with Nikki leading the charge.”

Before Tuesday’s game against the Wings, questions arose. Would Blue be ready for the challenge?

In her words, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for the former ASU assistant.

“As an assistant, you still have to do the bulk of the work, a lot of the work,” Blue said. “So the only thing that’s a little bit different is the other things that come along with the job as far as travel details for this weekend, etc. As far as the preparation and stuff, I think that that was pretty normal. I’m not really a nervous person. I get more excited than anything. The players have really made everything comfortable and kind of made this transition pretty seamless.”

Mercury forward Brianna Turner chimed in and jokingly said, “You’re welcome.”

Blue’s first game as head coach

Unfortunately, the transition didn’t exactly go as anticipated, as Phoenix trailed 24-13 in the first quarter. The Merc had five turnovers, while Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally scored in double figures. The next quarter proved more hopeful as the Mercury outscored the Wings, 19-12. Multiple steals, blocked shots and careful ball security were essential, with Phoenix only having two turnovers in the quarter.

If basketball was three quarters, the Mercury might have won. However, the fourth quarter struck, and Dallas imposed its will by scoring 21 points in the final 10 minutes. But the competitive spirit was there compared to prior games. After the loss, Blue acknowledged how competitiveness can’t be present in only three quarters.

“Yeah, I thought we competed tonight,” Blue said. “I thought we competed, but the goal is to compete for 40 minutes. The entire game, every single possession, we took a couple possessions off. I’m super critical because I’m the coach, but those couple of possessions that we did kind of take off, they took advantage of it.”

Basketball as a whole moves incredibly fast. Players and coaches typically don’t have time to dwell on losses. Blue took that to heart and knows that her team will be prepared for Thursday’s game against Indiana.

“We’ve had a crazy couple of days, and as they get more familiar with our new offense and new defensive schemes, I think it’ll get better,” Blue said. “We’re continuing to be optimistic. We never rejoice or accept losses. We are constantly going to be trying to get better.”

There isn’t such thing as a moral victory in this case. For Phoenix though, they picked up momentum after the loss. As Blue describes, there isn’t much time to worry.

“I do think that we took strides in the right direction tonight in certain areas,” Blue said. “So we’ll watch film tonight. We’ll talk about our correctables in the morning and then we’ll give it another shot. What’s great about this league is that there’s another game in less than 72 hours. So, we’ll be ready.”

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