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WNBA

The Phoenix Mercury Need This Brittney Griner Every Night

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury attempts a free-throw shot against the Seattle Storm during game three of the WNBA Western Conference Finals at Talking Stick Resort Arena on August 31, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You haven’t watched WNBA basketball if you’ve never been frustrated by Brittney Griner. On her off nights, the Mercury’s All-Star center has a tendency to disappear in places an All-Star center should not be disappearing. Optimistic quotes about Griner’s plans to work on her offensive rebounding are something of an annual end-of-season tradition at this point; in the eight years she’s been there, Phoenix has ranked in the bottom half of the league in that category. Coaching Griner, one imagines, involves a fair amount of reminding her that she’s 6-foot-9.

When she remembers—well, you can tell when she remembers. Griner’s sheer instinct for shot blocking may be unrivaled in WNBA history. As an offensive force, she’s unstoppable. Twice she has led the league in scoring, thanks to her size and to low-post footwork that seems like it only improves each year. Call her inconsistent, thrilling, maddening, promising. She’s all of those things. She’s the sort of player who, with one excellent game, might sucker a blogger who should know better into writing something premature about how Griner might finally be putting it all together.

The game was Wednesday night’s. The blogger is suckered. The Mercury actually fell to the Las Vegas Aces, 85–79, on account of a weird (and, to be fair, referee-aided) last-minute meltdown from Phoenix. But Griner finished with a season-high 27 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, shooting 75 percent from the field. She showed that this could very much be her basketball team, and if the Mercury want a chance at contention, she may not have much of a choice. Earlier on Wednesday, the team announced that scoring option No. 1, 38-year-old Diana Taurasi, will miss at least the next four weeks of the season with a fractured sternum.

Phoenix will turn to the third member of its Big Three, Skylar Diggins-Smith, to carry some of the production and facilitating load; Diggins-Smith finished last night’s game with 11 assists. The Kias Vaughn and Nurse should be able to help, too. But the get-it-to-Griner strategy might be the Mercury’s best scoring option now, and the emergence of post player and defensive stalwart Brianna Turner frees Griner up to focus more on her offensive game. Against the Aces and Liz Cambage, who’s just about the fairest matchup for Griner size-wise, Griner still managed to play the hits: turnaround jumpers right over Cambage’s head, spins out of double teams at the rim, even some clamping down on Cambage (there’s a great block at about the two-minute mark of the above highlight reel).

Running an offense through Griner would, first and crucially, require her to play this well every night. It would also take some re-tooling of Phoenix’s offense. The Mercury take 22 three-pointers per game, 6.5 of them Taurasi’s, and Griner can’t give them that. (Sadly she has not even reached Stage One of developing a three-point shot: posting intriguing Instagram videos of herself draining wide-open threes in an empty gym.) Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello had said at the beginning of the season that she wanted to shift away from the old inside-out style, but as long as it’s working, Brondello seems open to adapting. “BG had a great game. She was dominant. We could have gotten her the ball more,” Brondello said postgame.

There’s another reason it was nice to see Griner back in her best form, and it’s that the 2020 season had been an especially difficult and isolating experience for her. Griner left the WNBA’s bubble after 12 games and shared in February that she’d sought out mental health treatment afterward. “It’s done wonders for me,” she told the Arizona Republic. “I’m at a place now where I feel amazing. I took that time to work on my body as well, get rehab on my knees and other parts of my body. I’m feeling good and ready to go now.”

The usual “new season, new me” preseason script? Maybe. But if there’s one thing for certain about Brittney Griner, it’s that she’ll never let anyone stop believing.