August 15, 2020 

Brittney Griner returns to form for the Mercury

Griner looked like her old self, and the Mercury looked better than ever, even without Diana Taurasi.

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AUGUST 14: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury plays defense against the Atlanta Dream on August 14, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via GettyImages)

When Brittney Griner stepped into the WNBA in 2013, she was joined by a group of legends who would go on to post the highest winning percentage in league history and win a title a year later. Griner has improved dramatically since then, but she’s still at her best when she can anchor the Mercury defense and play a simplified offensive game.

Griner’s performance against Atlanta in a 96-80 victory on Friday night was reminiscent of the old days, and it made the All-WNBA center think back to nearly a decade ago, too. 

“You don’t win without defense,” Griner said postgame. “That’s been drilled into me for a long time. Playing for Kim Mulkey, that’s drilled into you.”

Though the Dream bench exploded for 29 in garbage time, Phoenix limited their output to just 51 in the first three frames. Griner’s rotations — a touch slow most of the season — was much better against Atlanta’s deep stable of perimeter scorers, and she tallied a season-high four blocks. 

“That’s my favorite part of the game, is blocking shots,” Griner said. “It’s something that I hadn’t been doing very well.”

Dream star Courtney Williams was a miserable 6-for-19 from the floor, and though she wiggled in to rebound her own misses several times, Griner’s defense was able to force Williams out of the paint and into awkward looks. The Mercury also kept Dream center Elizabeth Williams off the offensive glass and limited her offensive output, forcing Atlanta to play small and count on jump shots that didn’t fall.

Even in a game in which Diana Taurasi was out yet again with a back injury, Phoenix’s guard trio combined for 61 points, giving Griner a night to settle into a familiar role. After allowing the Sky to score 89 points earlier this week in a bad loss to the team that blew them out in the playoffs last year, Phoenix looked more composed against Atlanta. The third quarter, normally a rough spot for energy for this year’s Mercury, fell in their favor. The Mercury were just more aggressive Friday night than they’ve been most of the season.

Is everything falling into place? Not quite yet, but with this version of Griner, who scored 14 points and dished four assists in addition to her four blocks, Phoenix certainly looked the part of the title contender they were projected to be in the preseason.

Not only are the Mercury guards capably filling in for Taurasi during her absence, but the front court is coming together around Griner as well. Second-year forward Brianna Turner has had a quiet season thus far, but helped put the game away in the second half on a series of fast break buckets off Griner’s blocks as well as three steals of her own. Phoenix also had great success playing Griner alongside Kia Vaughn, another rangy big who can cover ground on defense and shoot the 3. 

“They partnered really well,” head coach Sandy Brondello said postgame. “Kia can really guard the 4, she’s got the mobility to do that, made some outside shots.”

In particular, the high-low passing between the two and the trust Brondello already has in the veteran Vaughn is making it easier for Brondello to find her minutes in a crowded front court rotation. Because of Vaughn’s ability to shoot, defenses can’t predict whether she’ll take an open look or dish it to Griner when she gets the ball on the perimeter. Defenses also can’t double off of Vaughn to give more attention to Griner because of that shooting ability.

“Kia is banging, she’s defending the big post players, she’s looking for me on the high-low,” Griner said.

The second half brought a better performance out of Turner, as the Mercury upped the tempo and put the game away. Phoenix’s pace and comfort level looked better then than it had all season. Rather than relying solely on their stars, Brondello found lineups that worked, and individual players were able to settle into familiar and effective roles.

It would be easy to say the Mercury are beginning to understand what they have, but that would discount just how badly they needed a return to form from Griner. Without her playing well, a solid night off the bench for one player or another just doesn’t matter as much.

“It just felt good collectively as a group,” Griner said, rejuvenated after a dominant two-way game. “Whatever I need to do to get the ball in the basket, I’m going to adjust and do that.”

Written by Brendon Kleen

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