The Phoenix Mercury and Las Vegas Aces nearly mirrored each other in the offseason following last season’s semifinals.
Gone are head coaches Sandy Brondello and Bill Laimbeer from last season’s teams. Instead, first-time coaches Vanessa Nygaard and Becky Hammon took over the teams in the offseason. Both went into the offseason projected to make another deep run in the playoffs.
Both teams lost its centers over the offseason with Liz Cambage opting to sign with the Los Angeles Sparks over the Aces and Brittney Griner remaining in Russian custody. The makeup of Friday’s game was changed for both in losing size, but the Aces managed to take an edge in rebounding and defense.
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The similarities stopped in the first half when the Aces took over all aspects of the game, attacking the boards with 25 rebounds and shooting with consistency at 60 percent. The Aces maintained stellar play, winning 106-88 in the season opener at Footprint Center.
“Defensively I thought in the first half, we didn’t give a lot of resistance. There were uncontested shots and obviously the newness of each other,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said.
Ahead of the season opener, the Mercury made quick changes to the lineup with forward Emma Cannon and guard Jennie Simms getting signed to replacement contracts the day of the game due to injuries already impacting the lineup.
Sophie Cunningham was questionable before the game, but was cleared to play and logged 22:28 minutes with 12 points in an elevated role off the bench. Diana Taurasi, Cunningham, and Diggins-Smith were the only players from last season’s team in the game. Forward Brianna Turner is expected to return to the group in Wednesday’s game against the Seattle Storm, along with wing Diamond DeShields, bringing in positive news.
The Aces didn’t give much breathing room in the first quarter, jumping to 13-3 start with its starting five firing on all cylinders. Eventually, the Aces took a 31-17 lead in the first quarter after making 65 percent of its attempts. The Mercury struggled to make consistent shots and fell behind with a 36.8 shooting percentage at the end of the opening quarter. Diggins-Smith and Tina Charles were the only two starters to get their shots through.
Changes in the second half included the Mercury opting for Cunningham to play the role as the power forward with Charles as the center. Taurasi, Diggins-Smith, and Shey Peddy were on the floor as the guards. Extending Cunningham’s minutes seemed to pay off at points in the second half, especially when she hit a 3 at 6:48 following some great playmaking from Charles, Taurasi, and Sam Thomas to find her open.
“The 31-17 start killed us, but then in the second half we played them even. It’s a lesson learned for us,” Diggins-Smith said. “They shot the lights out of the ball so we were playing a lot in the half court and we didn’t make a lot of shots so they were in transition. They’re probably the best transition team in the league.”
Diggins-Smith had the best first half for the Mercury, but continued her pace in the second half and led the Mercury to score 31 points in the third quarter. She didn’t go without taking hits in the game, especially after Chelsea Gray dove for a rebound and collided with Diggins-Smith. Both were down after the play, but Diggins-Smith kept playing right after.
As far as the Mercury had come in the second half, the Aces had made too many strides in the previous quarters. The entire starting five scored over double figures with Dearica Hamby leading with 24 points. Kelsey Plum made the Mercury pay when she was left open on the wings, knocking down five of nine attempts from the 3. Plum finished with 20 points.
The Mercury lost the rebounding battle with 26 rebounds to the Aces’ 38. A’ja Wilson grabbed 11 rebounds to go with her 15 points. Taurasi led the Mercury with four rebounds.
Both teams will meet again on May 17 in Las Vegas. Until then, the Mercury will have another home game on Wednesday against the Seattle Storm at 7 p.m.
“We picked up our intensity a little bit, our spacing was better, just sharing the ball and moving it a little better, and gave them a different movement. It was good,” Nygaard said. “I think it wasn’t like we didn’t get shots in the first half, we just didn’t make shots in the first half. We did score 88 points, but in the first half, we struggled with that and this is a league where you got to make shots and Vegas made a lot tonight.”
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