By: Kayla Mortellaro
PHOENIX— From the moment the ball tipped-off at Talking Stick Resort Arena, the Mercury had the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor as they battled the Tulsa Shock in game one of the WNBA Western Conference semi-finals.
The Mercury was energized, focused, determined, and played phenomenal team ball. At half time, Phoenix was leading by 30 points and by the final buzzer’s sound, defeated the Shock 88-55. The 33-point win sets a WNBA playoff record for the largest margin of victory, breaking the Sparks’ 31-point record in 2001.
On the night that Brittney Griner earned her second-consecutive WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, she led her team with 18 points, a playoff-record 11 blocks, and eight rebounds.
“I think it is because of the playoffs,” Griner said about the energy and effort Thursday night. “We don’t want to go home, we want to win. So, we are just going to come out and play as hard as we can. And we just came out with the intensity that we needed.”
A coach’s job is to assess the game and be the harsh critic. But watching her team compete in front of 8,509 fans, head coach Sandy Brondello was hard pressed to find much wrong with her squad’s performance.
“I’ve mentioned over the last few weeks, I thought that we are hitting our peak at the right time, and that’s what you want going in to the playoffs,” Brondello said. “Our bench has really stepped up for us and that makes us a harder team to play against. It’s only one game but I saw a lot of positive signs. It all starts with defense with me.”
For the Mercury, DeWanna Bonner had 15 points, six rebounds, and three assists in just 21 minutes of action. And Candice Dupree added 10 points, three rebounds and one assist in 19 minutes of playing time. The bench was led by Leilani Mitchell who had 12 points on 3-of-4 shooting from behind the arc and six assists. Cayla Francis had just two points but contributed defensively with four blocks and six rebounds.
Despite having such a big deficit, Tulsa never quit. To start the first six minutes of the third quarter, the Shock went on a 16- to-4 run. With a game all about momentum, Brondello knows the importance of her team staying focused and realizing it is a three-game series.
“Now when we play our best, we have as much chance as anyone to win the championship- when we are at our best,” Brondello said. “When we don’t come focused- we had five minutes we weren’t so good- that’s the other side of the coin. So, it’s more about being ready to play each and every possession, one quarter at a time. You know, we don’t look much further ahead than the next game.”
The Shock, which is playing in their first WNBA playoff series in Tulsa- franchise history, was led by guard Odyssey Sims with 18 points, three assists, and four rebounds. And guard Jordan Hooper added 14 points and six rebounds.
Overall the Shock struggled from the floor, shooting just 26 percent compared to the Mercury’s 54.8 percent. Tulsa head coach Fred Williams attributed much of his team’s struggles to the ball not finding the basket.
“I just thought we didn’t finish shots, we went to the basket, went in very hard, and came out empty,” Williams said. “When that happens- when you get shots at the tip of the basket, you expect some things to go and it didn’t happen and we got on our heels. They hit some three’s on us. I thought when they hit some three’s with [Leilani] Mitchell, that really broke it open. For us, we have some energy out there but lots of times you go in there and don’t get certain things that you want to get in the paint, you kind of get discouraged and start taking a lot of quick shots and jumpers.”
At the start of the season, many critics did not give the Mercury much of a chance to defend their 2014 title with the loss of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. But Phoenix sprinkled in new faces with the stable of Bonner, Dupree, and Griner. With the makeup of the current Mercury squad, the team has experience, leadership, and chemistry, all of which prevailed Thursday night.
“Some of our players – Dewanna [Bonner], Candice [Dupree], BG [Brittney Griner] in particular- they’ve been there and done that last year and the great experience we had with the run there,” Brondello said. “They really led from the front, obviously. But everyone, even the bench, they came in and did their job. And everyone’s focused and that will make us the best team that we can be. It’s not about three players, it’s about the whole team.”
With the win, the Mercury took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series. Phoenix is 10-1 all-time in a playoff series after taking a one game lead.
Game Two: Saturday at the BOK Center in Tulsa. Tip-off: 6 p.m. on NBATV
Game Three (if necessary): at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix. Tip-off: 7 p.m. on NBATV