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Before the Phoenix Mercury’s game against the Connecticut Sun on Tuesday, a recurring theme hit the press conference room: rest. After a 4-15 start to the season, rest was necessary to regroup. For Mercury guard Sug Sutton, she enjoyed the All-Star break by simply taking time away from the game.
“I thought it was a good break for me,” Sutton said. “Just to kind of get a break from basketball. I didn’t touch a basketball, I didn’t do anything. So I was just with family, just enjoying them and enjoying the time that I had with them in the short period that we had, but I really enjoyed it. I got to see BG play in the All-Star game so that was great too.”
Teammate and center Megan Gustafson responded right after Sutton. The former 2019 Naismith College Player of the Year is notorious for her bond with her dog, Pancake. The pair travels everywhere, from Iowa to Poland to Greece last offseason. During the break, Gustafson made a special trip with her companion.
“I went to Sedona with Pancake,” Gustafson said. “It’s very peaceful. I definitely needed it, just to kind of get away and relax. That was my main focus to do that, so it was great.”
On the other hand, Mercury head coach Nikki Blue spent her time fine-tuning the offensive system. Despite the lack of rest, Blue made sure her players got what they needed during the time off.
“I didn’t do anything that’s exciting,” Blue said. “Now I actually worked but, I took one day off, which was nice. So, it’s not about me, it’s about the players. I’m glad that they got the break that they needed.”
Safe to say that the first half of the Sun game was a revelation compared to games prior. The Mercury led by as many as 14, while limiting the Sun to 35.5 percent shooting from the field. Phoenix’s starters combined for 33 of the team’s 43 first half points. However, the second-half woes almost continued for the 11th-place squad. Connecticut cut the lead to just three before the Mercury regrouped and closed the quarter being up 10.
The return of Sophie Cunningham
For the last two weeks, Mercury forward Sophie Cunningham’s scoring ability disappeared. She only had one double-digit scoring effort against the New York Liberty earlier in July.
In Tuesday’s game, she came back in a big way. Cunningham dropped 17 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block while making five 3s. She even showed her infamous 3-point shimmy. After the game, she explained how she was simply having fun.
“I haven’t had fun in a minute,” Cunningham chuckled. “Went home, saw my family, my grandma said some prayers for me and she said, ‘I’ve been praying that the Lord will get your head out of your butt,’ and I think that her prayers work. I just wanna go out there and have fun. I think that’s when we’re at our best is when we’re having fun out there competing.”
Defense, defense and more defense
Phoenix held the worst defensive rating in the league before Tuesday’s win. The emphasis on that side of the ball hasn’t gone unnoticed. There were specifics through this game. Continual ball denial for Alyssa Thomas, forcing her around screens and moving DeWanna Bonner away from the 3-point line all proved beneficial.
Thomas shot 3-for-12 from the field and had 4 turnovers, while Bonner only connected on one 3-pointer. The two of them combined for 30 of Connecticut’s 66 points. Mercury forward Brianna Turner was matched on Thomas all game and made her life rough. The gritty atmosphere of this game is one that Turner embraces.
“I mean, I’ve been in the weight room a lot, so just trying to be physical out there,” Turner said. “Our focus was transition defense, so when the shot went off on offense, making sure she didn’t rebound back on defense because we know they’re a really efficient team in transition. I think we were just following the game plan and it turned out successful.”
Head coach Nikki Blue emphasized defense and competitiveness from the moment she took the role. The defensive identity is shaping up and players like Turner are sparking that change. Blue talked about the defensive culture, as well as what needed to happen for the team’s win on Tuesday.
“That was something that we emphasize — transition defense, as Breezy mentioned,” Blue said. “We wanted to build walls. I mean, AT is an amazing player and we wanted to limit her and her touches at the rim, her actions around the basket. We also wanted to take away the DeWanna Bonner’s 3s. They have so many scorers and so many threats out there.
“It took as a collective effort to actually hold them under 20 points per quarter, which is something I don’t think that we’ve done recently for sure. So I’m just proud of us defensively. We’ve gone in these past two days saying that this is going to be a defensive game, and our players executed the game plan.”
Hard work pays off for Coach Blue
As mentioned during pregame, Blue described how she worked extensively during the All-Star break. Schemes and play designs were among what showed out in Tuesday’s win. Getting Brittney Griner the ball early led to 11 3s. The pressure put on defenses by Griner is how the offense opens up for players like Cunningham and Turner.
In the month of July, the Mercury are 2-4, which isn’t amazing by any means. However, the saying goes that you have to crawl before you can walk. Phoenix is seventh in the league in defensive rating at 105.8. It’s certainly better than it was through the month of June (108.4). Steady progress is what seems to be happening, and much of it stems from Blue’s preparation. The former UCLA guard reflected on how her meticulous work during the All-Star break came to fruition.
“Well, I knew that the players would come back, locked in,” Blue said. “They’ve been awesome during this transition. Our coaching staff wanted to try to put us in the best situation possible, the best spots out there on the floor. But the players are the ones that execute. They’re the ones that go out there and give their hearts and souls out there on the floor every single night. And I’m just proud of my group.”