© 2023 BSN LIVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
A historic triple-double highlighted an anticlimactic season for the Phoenix Mercury in Friday’s 94-73 loss against the Las Vegas Aces. 13,206 seats were packed, signs were up and all eyes were on the Mercury. With the unsurprising number of fans in the building, it seemed the Mercury had a great season and were onto the postseason. Despite the X-Factor cheering in record numbers and the relentless enthusiasm, their season was far from a true success.
Oh Mercury, Where Do We Begin?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The end of 2022 concluded with news of joy, relief and hope not only for one single person, but an entire league. Brittney Griner was released from her wrongful detainment in Russia, in exchange for the “Merchant of Death”, Viktor Bout. Her return sparked a season of gratitude from her teammates, coaches and even opposing players. It truly showed how this was a moment much bigger than basketball.
The next question was if Griner would play in the 2023 season, or play basketball again for that matter. However, she made those questions disappear into thin air, as she announced she would play in that upcoming season. Many thought what her performance would be and started asking questions. Would BG have to play her way back into shape? How would she be used in the lineup? How would her usage be? A question that gets overlooked though is, ‘What would we see from Vanessa Nygaard’s system’?
Well, the first game against the Los Angeles Sparks brought everything. Celebrities like Billie Jean King, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley and even the United States vice president, Kamala Harris were at the game. The spotlight proved not to be a distraction for the former Baylor Bear.
18 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and a resounding 4 blocks for Griner in the City of Angels. It was a simple day in the office for someone who hadn’t played a game of basketball in over 500 days. Her next game, an even better performance. A 27 point and 10 rebound double-double against the last opponent she played, the Chicago Sky.
While Griner had dominant performances to start the season, the team couldn’t rely on just her. Nygaard thought otherwise, as she continually dumped the ball to her star, hoping something would happen, hence the firing of Nygaard after an abysmal 2-10 start. Interim head coach Nikki Blue had a tall task ahead of her, yet made the most of what she had. With a carousel of injuries, replacement contracts, among other situations, the Mercury certainly looked like a better team with her as head coach.
There was effort, passion and a sisterhood forming at seemingly every game. The record didn’t reflect what was being built. Griner explained following Friday’s loss what is being built behind the scenes that people might not know about.
“It’s been a season of trials and tribulations,” Griner said. “I don’t think one time it really broke or wasn’t there for somebody, or trying to encourage them and in some way. There’s highs, there’s lows but we always stuck together. I’ll say, I really enjoy this season as a group of ladies, honestly. It’s been really good with them.”
Analysis of Nikki blue
Overall, Blue did a very solid job, considering the circumstances. She was thrusted into this role, yet knew she was prepared. She went 7-20 through her 27 games as head coach. Although the record seems forgettable, the team’s performance and camaraderie didn’t disappoint. There was effort in every single game, from start to finish. Following the game, Blue described how she personally kept that energy, even with the less-than-appealing record.
“Well, I think that the thing that I relate with them the most, was that I was them,” Blue said. “I’ve been in the league for five years. I know what it takes, I’ve been there, I’ve been in practices, I’ve been in training camps. I know the grind. I know how much off days are needed. I know how much love and support from coaches are needed. I also know how having that tough love is needed as well, in order to grow. So I’ve been in their shoes, I feel that we connect on that level.”
“In addition to that, I think our team knows that I have their backs regardless. One of the things I asked for them when I became interim is ‘you guys go ahead and adopt my mentality, adopt my attitude’, which is relentless, never die and bite someone’s nose off. Fight to the death. Our team thinks that it’s so funny, but that’s the type of person I am.”
Blue even talked about her background as a contribution to her grit and grind mentality.
“I’m from Bakersfield, California, we are a blue collar town,” Blue said. “All we know how to do is work and so that’s all I’ve done my whole career. When you’re in a situation like our team this year… we don’t have the pieces and you might not have the stars out there on the floor with you. You have to do one thing and that’s grind.”
“The second thing is just to believe and I think that mentality has kind of kept us together, regardless of whether the wins or the losses, like we’re gonna stay together as a team and we’re always going to continue to work.”
Sug’s Historic Game
This season for the Mercury is full of history. From Diana Taurasi’s 10,000 point celebration, to a 45 point first quarter against the Connecticut Sun, they ended the home finale in historic fashion. In 39 minutes, one constant for Phoenix shined bright, as she has all season. She posted a performance for the ages. Sug Sutton had 18 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Her 10th assist came in the hands of one of her best friends and teammate, Michaela Onyenwere. Following the game, Sutton went full circle and teared up about her journey. She used one word to jump start her thoughts.
“Perseverance, Sutton said.”
“I think I learned how mentally I can get to that other side of things that work in the basketball world. I think that overall as a player, I think I grew just mentally. I think that I worked in my games, all the time coming from that league that I was in, to now. It was just a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance and just trying to get to where I wanted to be. I set goals for myself when I was little and just tried to attain that goal.”
Sutton continued on with tears running down her face, explaining her gratitude to the game she loves.
“I’m really thankful to be here and to be able to do this with my teammates and I wouldn’t be here without the support of everybody,” Sutton said emotionally. “I think that Phoenix has the best fans, and it’s really fun playing in front of them and they have a big factor in how I played this season for them. So, I’m just really thankful to be here and thankful for the opportunity to be a part of Phoenix Mercury.”
Although the season didn’t swing Phoenix’s way, this season taught resilience, toughness and resolve. If the Mercury’s injury bugs dissolve into next season, they could be a candidate for a bounce back year, given if free agency and the 2024 WNBA draft goes their way.