'Springy' Brittney Griner is 'dangerous to everyone else'

A healthy knee and a clear mind mean more than dunks ahead

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The foul came with 6:49 in the second quarter on Saturday, but that wasn’t important. What was? Brittney Griner went for it.

Griner received a pass deep in the paint and spun around Dallas Wings forward Kayla Thornton, who fouled her before she could get any type of shot up. But with her momentum still carrying her to the hoop, Griner went for the dunk, coming up a bit short but putting her teammates on notice.

“Feeling springy today,” Griner said she told them. “Just went up there. 30 years old now, let’s see if I can get up there.”

Griner can still get up there, all right. Later on, in the fourth, she threw down her first dunk in a WNBA game in nearly two years in the Mercury’s 89-85 win over the Wings. And perhaps most meaningfully, she got to do it in her home state of Texas.

“I was super hyped — my sister was in the stands, my sister-in-law, brother-in-law, friends,” Griner said. “Me and my sister, we always flex and do crazy stuff, so I saw her hype and I got hype. At home, in Texas, got a big dunk. It was great. I was feeling springy all day, honestly.”

Out of an out-of-bounds play with 7:15 left in the fourth quarter, Griner had a give-and-go with Kia Nurse on the inbounds, went to screen Skylar Diggins-Smith coming out of the corner, then rolled to the basket along the baseline. At that point Diggins-Smith got the ball from Nurse, fed it to a wide-open Griner and had one thing in mind.

“I was like, ‘Dunk that shit,’” Diggins-Smith said. “I was really like, ‘Dunk it,’ screaming at her. She’s locked in, and she can do that every night, if she wants to. For it to happen in the fourth quarter, legs a little bit tired, it was a huge momentum play for us. Seeing stuff like that in person, it’s like, ‘Damn, you’re happy to have her on your team.’”

Mercury guard Shey Peddy was on the bench at the moment but added, “I could’ve ran on the court and gotten a delay-of-game. I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s the 13th career WNBA regular season dunk and 19th overall in the league (five in All-Star Games, one in the postseason) for Griner, and her first since Aug. 10, 2019. It also come on a night where she finished with 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting, 16 rebounds, four assists and a block while only committing one foul.

Griner was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Tuesday after her other game against Liz Cambage and the Las Vegas Aces also saw her tally 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting and 11 rebounds. On that night, Diggins-Smith said she “dominated,” and to follow it up with the sensational all-around performance against the Wings won her the award, even if the dunk stole the headlines and the spotlight.

“That [dunk] was phenomenal,” Nurse said. “It was so much fun, and obviously what BG brings us every single night — not just with the dunk [Saturday], but how many points she puts up, what she does with the rebounds, the ability to anchor the defense. I’ve never been in a WNBA game with a dunk, but that was a lot of fun and I’m glad it was on my team.”

What has really impressed Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello about Griner’s Player-of-the-Week-worthy performance in last week’s two games — the first two Phoenix has played without Diana Taurasi, who is still out for at least three more weeks — is her improvement on the defensive end, too.

“I think she realizes how impactful she is to our defense and we’re trying to help her in areas,” Brondello said on Monday. “The last two games, I thought she was fantastic on defense. She didn’t give Liz Cambage an inch and was really dominant inside on pick-and-rolls and contesting and rebounding and changing shots, and that’s what we’re going to need from her.”

Griner’s presence isn’t just what she brings herself on the defensive end, but the way it allows her teammates to defend, too.

“Knowing that she’s back there, it helps a lot. You’re able to gamble more,” Peddy said. “You don’t try to do too much and risk her getting in foul trouble because of a simple mistake you did, but just knowing you have that big presence behind you, it’s hard to not just want to gamble and just overplay, because you know if they go backdoor, they’re running into BG and good luck with that.”

Peddy didn’t join the Mercury in the bubble until after Griner had already left, but the Griner she’s playing with now is a completely different person than the one who did leave. And while much has rightly been made about the mental health side of Griner’s decision to leave the team, there was a major physical element, too.

Griner revealed that she did one-on-one work with a physical therapist at EXOS, a training facility in North Phoenix, during the fall and winter to clear up some “nagging stuff” with her knee. The work began a few weeks of leaving the bubble and went 2-3 times a week from that point until she left for Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in January.

“BG’s awesome — she’s definitely one of my favorite people that I’ve worked with,” said Keegan Ross, the performance specialist and physical therapist at EXOS who worked with Griner. “She’s a really good person and it was really fun just to get to help her out and get to know her.”

The reason for the knee troubles? In Griner’s mind, it was the “wear-and-tear” of the constant grind of the WNBA-to-overseas-and-back playing schedule top-level women’s basketball players like her play though.

“I think she was just in a place where she needed some good offseason training,” Ross said. “When you play basketball year-round, it can definitely be tough mentally and physically. When you get time for a good offseason program, it can kind of reset, rebuild some strength, rebuild some power and set yourself up for a good in-season.”

Griner herself also typically plays for USA Basketball in whatever major international competitions they are in, too. Before leaving the bubble and taking that time away, her last significant stretch of time without playing basketball was between her junior and senior years at Baylor in the summer of 2012.

“You do it year after year, it takes its toll on the body,” Brondello said. “BG hadn’t had a break, and that’s tough. She did have some lingering issues and it’s hard to play with pain. So she made the best decision for her and we supported her through that. She’s back and even from day one, she’s felt good. When your body feels good, the mind feels good and you just go out there and do what you love.”

Griner added, “I hate that it happened the way it happened, clearly, but it was beneficial for me, mentally and for my body.”

After doing the rehabilitation work on her knee and also taking the time to do performance training — which Ross said included working on sprints, change-of-direction movements and “full-body” strength training — Griner is playing without knee pain for the first time in a long time and has returned to feeling like herself again.

“Even the year before the bubble, you could see it coming over on my face. It was just a lot,” Griner said. “With everything going on in the world and personally, it was just a lot. I was not myself. I’m always happy, cracking jokes. A big kid — since Baylor, everybody’s seen that. I wasn’t myself, didn’t recognize myself.

“Now, looking in the mirror and just being happy every day. Coming to the gym and I’m there early every day. I’m just sitting there hours before practice. I’m in a really good place and that’s where I’m trying to stay.”

And what does Griner being in a good place physically mean to the Mercury? It may mean this isn’t the only dunk you’ll see out of the 30-year-old this year.

“It’s kind of dangerous to everyone else,” Peddy said. “BG’s feeling springy. BG’s playing the best she’s played in a while. She’s out here healthy, throwing down dunks, running the floor, getting buckets, getting rebounds. It’s going to be hard to stop her. It already is hard to stop her, but when she’s feeling like she’s feeling now, just watch out.

“Watch your head. She’s coming.”