Story and photos by Devin Millington, October 2018 Issue.
The 2018 WNBA season was a condensed affair due to the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, which began immediately following the WNBA Championship.
This meant that the 34 regular-season games had to be played within a 91-day window. With such a condensed season, questions about fatigue and injury were of paramount concern.
And soon the Phoenix Mercury would discover what that meant for its roster.
The Regular Season
Under the tagline “Be Heard,” the Phoenix Mercury kicked off its 22nd season May 19 against the Dallas Wings. The team put up a couple wins, followed by a few losses, and then something wonderful happened: the Mercury jump-started June with an eight-game winning streak, five of which were on the road.
In fact, June was so successful for the Mercury that Diana Taurasi earned player of the month and head coach Sandy Brondello earned coach of the month honors.
Unfortunately, the last day of June was a season changer. Sancho Lyttle suffered a catastrophic ACL tear in a road game against the Washington Mystics. The offseason acquisition of the free-agent wasn’t seen as a big deal until she hit the court in Phoenix. Lyttle was impressive and started all 18 games until she sustained her injury. From there, the team’s record and their rank in the standings dropped quickly.
In Lyttle’s absence, Brondello tried a variety of starting lineups throughout the rest of season with little success – at first. The Mercury won only two of its nine games in July, but managed to bounce back in August, winning five of seven, including the last four regular season games.
The team’s strong finish, a season record of 20-14, paid off and the Mercury clinched its sixth consecutive playoff berth – 13th in franchise history – Aug. 9.
Well rested, Taurasi had a stellar regular season, setting more records and proving she’s nowhere close to retirement. Wasting no time at all, Taurasi became the first WNBA player ever to make 1,000 career three-pointers. She joins Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard as the only four players to reach 1,000 threes before their 400th game.
Brittney Griner also made basketball history this season. During the team’s June 1 victory over the league’s defending Champions, the Minnesota Lynx, Griner hit a historic milestone in both the WNBA and NBA. With three blocks, Griner tied Alonzo Mourning as the fourth fastest player in combined league history to reach 500 blocks, doing so in 153 career games, and the fastest in the WNBA history to the milestone.
Worth noting in both instances is that WNBA games run only 40 minutes in length, compared with the NBA’s 48-minutes games.
And, after earning WNBA Player of the Month in June, Taurasi came back and scooped it up again in August.
Also in August, Griner was named to the 2018 WNBA All-Defensive First Team for the third time. Griner led the WNBA in blocked shots (2.56 blocks per game) for the sixth consecutive season.
When the All-WNBA honors were handed out in early September, Taurasi landed on the First Team for the 10th time in her career. It was her 13th time overall on the First or Second Team, surpassing the record she shared with Lisa Leslie and Tamika Catchings.
The WNBA celebrates the LGBTQ community annually with its Pride Night each June. In Phoenix, fans were greeted at their seats with colorful signs that created a 360-degree rainbow area effect as the Mercury took on the Connecticut Sun.
This year, the Mercury honored Team USA figure skater Adam Rippon. After winning a bronze medal at the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea, Rippon made history by becoming the first openly gay U.S. male athlete to win a medal in a Winter Olympics event.
In attendance with his boyfriend, Rippon participated in a halftime interview conducted by Phoenix Suns and Mercury vice president and color commentator Ann Meyers Drysdale.
The game concluded with a fierce round of drag bingo hosted by Miss and Mister Phoenix Pride 2018 Mya McKenzie and Daniel Eckstrom.
This year, Taurasi, Griner, and DeWanna Bonner were voted as WNBA All-Stars. The game, which took place July 28 in Minneapolis, Minn., featured a new roster selection format for the annual mid-season break.
The new format removed the traditional “East vs. West” teams in favor of rosters that felt more like a pick-up game down at the local park. Mystics star Elena Delle Donne and Sparks standout Candace Parker were voted as team captains and they picked from the pool of All-Star players – with Phoenix’s big three all landing on Team Delle Donne.
The All-Star coaches were determined by which two teams had the best records following July 13 games. Therefore, head coaches Dan Hughes (Seattle Storm) and Phoenix’s Brondello, respectively.
The game itself, which Team Parker won, 119-112, was a typical All-Star game in that the very little defensive effort made way for fancy passing and easy dunks. Overall, it was an entertaining matchup and a great opportunity to see players interact on a more social level with their regular season opponents.
A Controversial Call
The Phoenix Mercury fan base, known as the X-Factor, were ready to cheer on a very strong Mercury team and did so throughout the season, but they also were very vocal when the referees blew calls – of which there were many.
WNBA President Lisa Borders claimed that the long-standing referee problems would be fixed soon because a head of WNBA referee performance and development position was created to address such issues.
Unfortunately, they named a long-time WNBA referee Sue Blauch to this new position Aug. 1. With a a reputation for being one of the worst referees in the league, Blauch will have her work cut out for her.
In her new role, wnba.com reported that Blauch will oversee the day-to-day management and on-court performance of the WNBA’s officiating staff. Blauch will report to Monty McCutchen, NBA vice president, head of referee development and training.
In Phoenix, die-hard fans have used everything from their T-shirts to their wallets (by not renewing their season tickets) to send the message that poor officiating is ruining the game.
Blauch has worked the WNBA Finals since 2005 and officiated the 2006 and 2011 WNBA All-Star Games. Her international career began in 1997 and culminated with the 2006 FIBA Basketball World Cup and the Bronze Medal game at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Blauch has the experience and expertise to make the changes that the X-Factor is longing for, especially after such close-scoring games in the semi-finals.
The Mercury entered the 2018 playoffs as the sixth seed and played two single-elimination games. They traveled to Dallas in the first rounds and defeated the Wings handily.
Their next opponent, also on the road, was the Connecticut Sun. The game remained close until the second half, when the Mercury’s big three – Taurasi, Griner and Bonner – took over and built a strong double-digit lead, earning the victory.
The Mercury faced the Seattle Storm in the semifinals and fought hard, pushing the series to five games. After leading the Storm for most of the deciding matchup, Sept. 4 in Seattle, the Mercury fell short by just 10 points and the Storm advanced to face the Washington Mystics (who squeaked by the Atlanta Dream in a five-game series) in the 2018 WNBA finals.
Back at home, it’s another summer in the books for the X-Factor as the long countdown to training camp begins.
It should be an interesting off season as the Phoenix franchise sets out on its quest to find the talent necessary to make its fourth WNBA championship attainable next season.
For more information, visit mercury.wnba.com.