Phoenix Mercury Banking On More Prep Time, Cunningham Return To Flip Finals Game 2 Script

The Phoenix Mercury rebounded from a Game 1 loss in the WNBA playoff semifinal series vs. Las Vegas to win Game 2 on the road.

There is no lack of confidence on the Mercury side that they similarly can win Game 2 at home Wednesday to even the best-of-five WNBA Finals against the Chicago Sky. 

Winning is almost mandatory for the fifth-seeded Mercury since Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) are in Chicago, where the No. 6 Sky won twice to put away Connecticut in their semifinal series. 

"We've got to get (Wednesday)'s game, it's a must," said Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham, who will return from a calf injury that kept her out for three games and could be a difference maker like in a first-round elimination game against New York on Sept. 23. 

"It spreads the floor a little bit and gives BG (Brittney Griner) more room to work," Cunningham said of her presence. "It maybe takes the pressure off Diana (Taurasi) and Skylar (Diggins-Smith) a little bit as well because they've got to help off. If the game plan is to give me the ball then I'm going to be dialed in. When we have such great playmakers, it makes it a lot easier for our team to get those easy buckets."

she back. pic.twitter.com/z2Zlfdg9WJ

— Sophie Cunningham (@sophaller) October 11, 2021

Cunningham had 21 points (6-of-7 from 3-point) in that game when the Mercury still were without Taurasi due to an ankle injury. Taurasi returned in the second round, but now the Mercury are without Kia Nurse, who suffered an ACL tear at the start of Game 4 against Las Vegas.

So the 6-1 Cunningham becomes important not just for her trademark energy and long-range shooting but to help on the wing against 6-1 Kahleah Copper, who had a game high 21 points Sunday in the Sky's 91-77 win.

"It's a little bit more size on her (Copper)," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. "Copper's still got the speed on everybody, it's not just one person that should stop her. At the same time, they've got a lot of depth and can spread you out. It's just great to have her (Cunningham) back on both ends of the floor. 

"She lives for these moments. She's been itching to go for the next two games. She brings the energy and I love being around her because she makes my job easier."

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The Sky are 6-1 in the playoffs with their only loss in Game 2 at Connecticut on Sept. 30. Coach James Wade wants his players not to be satisfied with a Finals road split.

The Mercury are seeking their first playoff win at Footprint Center, where they lost Game 4 to Las Vegas and Game 1 to the Sky. Like on Oct. 6, they again are playing as the nightcap of a WNBA/NBA doubleheader after the Suns-Portland preseason game, tipping off at 2 p.m. 

"You just have to take from your experiences," Wade said. "We played that Game 2 (vs. Connecticut) pretty well. We ran into a wall where we couldn't score so you learn from it and say what can we do better in case we get in these situations again. I thought they had a sense of urgency, it's just Connecticut was a good team.

"We think Phoenix is a great team as well, and we know they're going to come with everything. But we think we have enough to withstand whatever they come with. As much as they don't want to to down 0-2, we don't want to be 1-1."

The Mercury believe having two days off to rest and better prepare for the Sky than during a 40-hour turnaround before Game 1 will make a difference similar to what happened in the semifinal series when Las Vegas was rested and the Mercury coming off two narrow single-elimination game wins.

"We have to take the game," Diggins-Smith said. "They took the game (Sunday), 50-50 balls, turnovers, they made things happen, they controlled the tempo, made shots. They did everything the right way. We have to make them more uncomfortable than they were because they passed it around, ran in transition.

"We didn't go home after that. We didn't lose the ring. We knew we were going to have to make adjustments in this series especially not being able to get on the court to prepare for them in Game 1."

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Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-SmithPhoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith on necessity of winning Game 2 of WNBA Finals.Jeff Metcalfe, Arizona Republic

Taurasi was self critical after Game 1 particularly for committing six turnovers, saying it was her "being a bad basketball player." In reality, she was a tired human whose second child was born less than 20 hours before the Finals opener. 

It hasn't slowed down much for Taurasi since Game 1 although she insists that her and the Mercury's performance in Game 2 will be improved.

"Right after the game, I went over to Banner, Penny (Taylor, her wife) got discharged and Leo (their 3-year-old son) got to meet Isla on Sunday," Taurasi said. "It was a good end to a not great day.

"My parents have been here. They came for the New York game and thought it was going to be a short little week and it turned into a three-week ordeal. They're really helped with Leo and Penny and now with the baby. We have plenty of help."

The Mercury need to shore up their defensive help to combat the Sky's diversified offense that put six players into double figures in Game 1. Copper, Allie Quigley, Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot are averaging between 13 and 18 points in the postseason and are enough of a handful that the Mercury can't afford to then give up 14 points to Stefanie Dolson off the bench.

"We were nowhere near where we needed to be in that last game," Brondello said. "They were the better team. We've got a few days to rest now. We've got to refocus and dig deep. We've got to play a little chess game where we try to exploit them a little bit and hopefully that will be enough."

Up next

Chicago Sky at Phoenix Mercury, 6 p.m. Wednesday, Footprint Arena, ESPN — The Mercury (19-13 regular season, 5-3 playoffs) are trying to win their first postseason game at Footprint Arena, where they are 0-2. Their home playoff wins were in games played at GCU Arena and ASU's Desert Financial Arena. The Mercury are just 7-11 overall this season on their true home court compared to 15-5 on the road. The Sky (16-16 regular season, 6-1 playoffs) are 1-3 overall vs. the Mercury including a 103-83 loss on Aug. 31 when Kia Nurse (now out with injury) scored 21 points for Phoenix.

More: Mercury's Brondello, Sky's Lange on separate sides in WNBA Finals but united in marriage

More: Chicago Sky overpower fatigued Phoenix Mercury in WNBA Finals opener

More: Griner, Taurasi lead Phoenix Mercury back to WNBA Finals in Game 5 win over Aces

Reach the reporter at jeff.metcalfe@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8053. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.

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Source : https://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/wnba/mercury/2021/10/12/mercury-banking-more-prep-time-cunningham-return-flip-game-2/8423503002/

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