The Small Mercury Are Big Fun

Last week, after the Mercury opened their season at home with a hard-fought loss to the Aces, a reporter asked new head coach Nate Tibbetts whether Phoenix’s eye-popping three-point shooting volume that night was here to stay. To hang around with the reigning champs for three quarters, the Mercury had attempted 36 threes and made 15 of them. It was a one-game sample, but for what it’s worth, last year’s Mercury averaged fewer than 21 three-point attempts per game, and only once all season had they taken more than 30. Yes, Tibbetts said, peering down at his box score. He joked that he wanted more at first, but then said 36 was about right: “We want to be 35 to 40 threes. That’s the style we’re going to play.” 

In the NBA, where teams have eight extra minutes to get shots up and where Tibbetts spent more than a decade as an assistant, 35 might be right around league average. (The Orlando Magic team Tibbetts left to coach the Mercury attempted an almost NBA-low 31 this past season.) But a WNBA team has yet to launch like that. Per Across the Timeline, when last year’s Liberty set a record for three-point attempts per game in the regular season, they did so with just under 30. A team taking 35 to 40 would be immediately interesting.

Alas, the Mercury fell short of their goal last night, taking only 33 threes in a rematch in Vegas, but Tibbetts won’t mind much: This time, Phoenix won. Granted, the Aces are missing their All-WNBA point guard to start the season and have looked unusually mortal on both sides of the ball without Chelsea Gray. But the Mercury made a typically stout defense look silly, survived a late Vegas run, and cashed in on 16 of those 33 attempts to come away with a 98-88 win. I may have thinkpieced Tibbetts’s hiring, but I respect his genius coaching tactic. To become fun overnight, and to cast off the crummy vibes that have haunted your team for the last two years, you should simply take a bajillion threes and make a lot of them. 

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The Mercury may have arrived here less by design than by accident. Before the season started, the team announced that Brittney Griner, their reliable fount of offense inside, had fractured her toe and would only be “re-evaluated in the coming weeks.” That was pretty bad news for a team whose backup center is [file not found], and in Griner’s absence, Phoenix has been forced to work with some wonkier, small-ball lineups. They own! To defend A’ja Wilson last night, the Mercury essentially stacked 6-foot-4 forward Natasha Mack and 5-foot-10 guard Natasha Cloud on top of each other in a trench coat, and it actually worked. Wilson looked uncomfortable and finished just 8-of-18 from the floor. 

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A happy byproduct of small-ball is all the space left for Kahleah Copper, the centerpiece of Phoenix’s blockbuster offseason trade with Chicago. It takes an uncommon talent to win Finals MVP on a team with two Hall of Famers, and so far this season, Copper has been exactly the dynamic player she was on the best five-out Sky teams. Following a 38-point performance against Atlanta on Saturday, she put up 37 hugely entertaining points again last night, coming by her offense in the cool ways she’s known for—as the best slasher in the league—and in other neat ways, too. Five of those 16 three-point makes were hers, but my favorite Copper shot of the night (2:15 above) was a two-dribble pull-up that said she was in the damn zone. If the season ended today, I would first be very confused because it’s only been three games, but then I would send in an MVP vote for Copper, which the WNBA would return to me, saying, “Leave us alone. You are not an MVP voter.” There’s the other one weird trick to becoming fun overnight and winning some games: Simply get Kahleah Copper on your team.

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