Jun. 20, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Mercury guard Samantha Prahalis (99) celebrates with teammate guard DeWanna Bonner (24) during the game against the Washington Mystics during the second half at US Airways Center. The Mercury defeated the Mystics 79-77. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE
Being eleven games under .500 and five games out of the Playoffs generally makes a team as uninteresting as they come, but not the 2012 Phoenix Mercury as they head into a very important stretch.
The first half of the season was not what the Mercury envisioned, but it happened. They went 4-15 including losing eight out of nine to enter the Olympic Break.
Despite winning only four games the team did have a few breaks go there way making the second half of the season meaningful. No matter what happens over the next 15 games on the court it will make a significant impact off the court.
Before the break the Mercury lost two really tough outings against the Seattle Storm in an unflattering fashion by a combined 34 points. Normally that would be the final nail in the coffin for a team, but the Mercury are somehow, someway, still in the hunt.
Going into their next game (against the Storm) they are currently five games behind them for the final playoff slot. With three total games against the Storm this season the Mercury have a chance for vindication and meaning to this season.
Chasing the Storm has to be the focus for the Mercury because losing one game to them is as detrimental as losing multiple games to any other team in the WNBA.
Here is the interesting thing: Catching the Storm is not Mission Impossible even though it is an uphill battle, but the fact is it is at least still a battle.
There in lies the importance of having Diana Taurasi back. With Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner, and Samantha Prahalis the Mercury can beat the Storm and challenge them out west. If they miraculously make the playoffs then there is an off chance Candice Dupree and Charde Houston would be ready to suit up again. A lot of "what if's," but at least there is a positive answer to a Mercury question after the rough first half.
Taurasi will not make the trip to Seattle for the first game back due to her travel schedule after the Olympics putting a lot of pressure on the current group to steal one without their returning leader.
The Mercury remaining schedule features seven games against teams currently under .500 for the season. That is seven chances to advance in the standings and make a move. Three of the first five games back are against under .500 teams and three games are at home. That stretch defines the season. A 4-1 or 3-2 start gives the Mercury a chance. Anything less would essentially end the season.
So far this season Bonner has emerged from being a perennial Sixth Woman of the Year candidate to the best player on the team. Sure, they are very shorthanded, but Bonner has taken her game to new heights. Her co-pilot this season has been Prahalis who has proven to be a dynamic rookie play-maker.
As stated in the Rookie of the Year post earlier this week the 6th Pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft has provided a spark and was a steal. Early in the season Prahalis proved she is a great play-maker averaging 5.2 APG through the first 9 games of the season leading the WNBA then switched into more of a scorer out of need the last 10 games averaging 15.1 PPG.
Others performed well during the first 19 games including Avery Warley and Alexis Hornbuckle. Those new additions have gradually leaned the system and become solid role players this season.
Injuries countered all the positives this season as the record shows. It is easier to talk about the players that have played every game verses those who have been shelved due to injury. Alexis Gray-Lawson, Hornbuckle, Warley, Bonner, and Prahalis are the only players to log all 19 games this season.
Nakia Sanford (4), Krystal Thomas (5), Houston (1), Dupree (9), Taurasi (17), and Penny Taylor (19) have combined to miss 55 games this season. That is the starting center, back-up center, budding Sixth Woman candidate, and three All-Stars on the sidelines for large chunks of the season.
Having one of those All-Stars back (Taurasi) is just what Bonner and Prahalis need to balance the offense and take some pressure off of them. Taurasi went through the Olympics injury free for eight games as well as exhibition games and practices. Obvious jet-lag is going to be there for her as she flies in from London after an intense month of basketball. Equipped with Taurasi the Mercury -- on paper -- are a lot better and a potential playoff team.
If they miss out on the playoffs or stumble out of the gates it creates a whole new room for discussion.
It leads to the conversation the team will avoid, but the fans will ultimately be clamoring about. If the team falls far enough out of the playoff race do they shutdown the stars and put all their chips in the 2013 WNBA Draft for Brittney Griner?
That does not imply tanking games or the season, but rather avoid insult and injury to a player like Taurasi or Bonner by subjecting them to meaningless games down the stretch.
One thing about the Mercury is that they are still very interesting and very much alive for the season. The story-lines and drama is still there and exciting basketball will be offered through September, and hopefully into October.