June 20, 2021 

Brittney Griner playing at an MVP level for Phoenix

Playing through a rolled ankle, Griner was key in helping Mercury end losing streak ahead of Taurasi's return

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With a four-game losing streak in tow and eight days without a game ahead of them, Brittney Griner had a very clear approach to Friday’s game against the Sparks.

Hold nothing back.

“Knowing we have that many days in between the next game, it’s like, put it all out there,” Griner said before Friday’s game. “Put it all out there and go as hard as you can, because we’ve got time to rest and get back ready. So really, it’s balls to the wall and go.”

Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith have been leading the charge for the Mercury all season long, especially with Diana Taurasi out for the last four weeks with a fracture in her sternum. But in what’s likely their last game before Taurasi returns, it was those two teaming up again to propel the Mercury to a streak-breaking 80-66 win in Los Angeles and allow the team to head into their mini-break with a victory.

With Taurasi out, Griner has put up MVP-worthy numbers: per game, she averaged 22.4 points (on 63% shooting from the field and 80% from the free-throw line, including her third career 3-pointer on June 13), 11.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.0 blocks.

“I think it’s the best I’ve ever seen her play, to be quite honest,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said, “and I’ve seen BG play at a really high level.”

Griner is currently on pace to set track the double-digit rebounds per game mark for the first time in her career, currently at 10.1 per game. She’s also been effective from the midrange, where she’s making more than 50% of her attempts for the first time in her career.

Thanks to that developing midrange jumper, efficiency on the offensive end has been the best it’s been in years, with her true shooting percentage up to 62.6% (her highest since 2017) and her usage rate is down to 23.9% (lowest since 2016). With Diggins-Smith helping carry the load and Taurasi returning, it’s not hard to envision both of those numbers getting better, too.

“I just think how she can impact at both ends of the floor,” Brondello said. “Her rebounding has gone to another level, and I know that’s an area she needed to get better at. Her ability to stretch out and shoot the perimeter shot, she’s knocking them down quite easily too. We just need to give her a little bit more help. We know Diana’s coming back soon, but we still need others to kick up and make her life a little bit easier.”

What Griner did in the Mercury’s two games in Los Angeles against the Sparks shows the gravity she carries, even when not completely right physically. Early in the first quarter on Wednesday, Griner was fouled on a drive and landed awkwardly on her ankle, rolling it and falling over. Griner was limping for quite a bit afterward and was also later seen leaving the arena in a walking boot.

Griner frequently uses a question to describe playing through pain: “Are you injured or are you hurt?” While some people may not get how those two differ, each brings an entirely different mindset to Griner.

“We’re professional athletes at an elite level,” Griner said. “Sometimes, you just gotta push through things that a normal person would probably take a day or two. You just gotta push through.”

Even though she came out for a few minutes in the first quarter, Griner played the rest of the night and was dominant, tallying 30 points — making 10-of-16 shots and 10-of-12 free throws — and 12 rebounds for her eighth double-double of 2021. Even though the Mercury lost 85-80 to the Sparks, it was clearly not Griner’s fault.

“Amazing. Without BG, it would’ve been a really tough night for us,” Brondello said after the game. “To do what she did, 30 points, keeps rebounding, getting to the foul line. She’s the aggressor — I think everyone knows we go through her and they’re throwing different looks at her, but she keeps coming out with really, really good games.”

In that second game against the Sparks, Griner scored 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting (but 6-of-8 from the free-throw line), eight rebounds and two blocks in 36 minutes of action. Even without making the same type of dent in the box score as she usually does, it’s obvious that she’s the most impactful player on the court night-in and night-out — even if she’s banged up.

“Just the threat of her — she’s the best player in the world, so even her not 100% is pretty damn good,” Diggins-Smith said after Friday’s win. “She’s a ‘chick magnet’ — she’s going to draw everybody to her, doubles and triple-teams every time.

“So even just the threat of her not being 100%, for her to still get 30, for her to still be doing the things that she’s doing, almost getting a double-double tonight, that’s what she does. That’s what she does. She’s a tough player, she did a great job preparing her body and getting ready for us and just grinding through this week. That’s what we expect out of her.”

There’s never truly a good time to roll your ankle, but it was perhaps the best moment in the Mercury’s schedule for her to have a knock. Phoenix’s next game is a third battle with the Sparks that was originally scheduled for Saturday, June 26 but has been pushed back a day to June 27 to accommodate the Suns’ Western Conference finals series, as the teams share an arena.

The extra day means Griner and the entire Mercury roster will have a full eight days in between games to recuperate and recover before two weeks of games ahead of the Olympic break. After the team took the weekend off, restarting on Monday will be like a mini-training camp.

“This gives us a lot of time to be in the gym, to work on things, improve on things,” Diggins-Smith said. “That valuable time, you only get a few weeks of training camp, so this is great. We’ve got people who are banged up, bruised up. Getting bodies healthy, taking care of our bodies, being true professionals, coming in, spending time in the gym and also taking some time off to rest a little bit. We’ve got a lot of time, we want to make sure we use it to rejuvenate ourselves and not come out flat.”

And with that should bring the return of Taurasi, who has been out since May 26 with the fractured bone in her sternum. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer was seen doing layup lines and warming up with the team before both games in Los Angeles, her first time doing that since the fracture.

“She’s allowed to shoot and all that stuff non-competitive at the moment,” Brondello said. “We’re hoping the next game, she’s ready to go, but we’ll see how this week goes, it’s a nice little break for us. Hopefully, she’s cleared to play, that’s the most important thing, and we’ll find that out this week.”

Without Taurasi, players all up-and-down the lineup have had to step into bigger roles than anticipated. Griner’s done so with force, and Diggins-Smith has similarly put up superstar-level performances, averaging 20.3 points and six assists per game without Taurasi. But every other player on the team has struggled, and Brondello has felt the team lacked energy during their losing stretch.

“Every game, I want them to play to the best of their ability in the role they’ve been given,” Brondello said. “To be successful, you need five players to make sure they have that chemistry on the court. At times, in this losing streak, we kind of lost that — we didn’t get gritty enough, we weren’t competing enough, we weren’t playing together enough.”

But on the whole, the Mercury have gone 4-5 without Taurasi, which is not ideal but also not season-sinking — especially when you consider that three of the four losses in their losing streak were hard-fought, down-to-the-wire battles. While some teams would splinter with a run of losses, it seems like Phoenix has gone the other way, even having an all-team meeting on Thursday in Los Angeles ahead of their Friday game.

Skylar Diggins-Smith posted this on her Instagram story on Thursday.

“We all went out together and said, ‘This is the first day of our new season,’” Diggins-Smith said. “We wanted to have that little [deep breath], okay, because it can be an overwhelming season. I thought we did a great job of saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to start today, we’re going to recalibrate ourselves and focus in. Enough talking, let’s do what we need to do to get this done.’ I thought we did a good job of being locked in, especially defensively.”

Brondello added, “The most that I’m proud of is that no one hung their head. We all had to get better, including myself. That’s why I said there’s no blame, it’s all about solutions here. There was a committed effort on the defensive end executing.”

That execution defensively will always anchor with Griner for Phoenix, who has been solid all season long on both ends of the floor. If anything, the Mercury haven’t been able to get her enough touches at times and haven’t made teams pay for double-and triple-teaming her. If only there was a third superstar on the way back to help with that…

“Obviously, BG and Sky get a lot of the attention, but it’ll be nice to add Diana Taurasi into the mix because she can pass the ball better than anyone,” Brondello said on Friday. “BG, we couldn’t really get her the ball — they were triple-teaming her — but Diana will find a way, put it that way.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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