June 8, 2024 

‘Wow, we’re big again’: Brittney Griner makes immediate impact in return for Phoenix Mercury

Kahleah Copper: 'Nobody's just going down there in the paint. It's just not happening'

PHOENIX — After missing the first 10 games of the season with a toe fracture, Brittney Griner made her season debut Friday for the Phoenix Mercury. The star center was embraced by her teammates and the fans, known as the X-Factor, and helped the Mercury pull off a major win.

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“I mean, just sitting back and watching my team hold it down and play and compete, I was just chomping at the bit to get out there,” Griner told reporters postgame. “So it just feels good being back with my team and being able to contribute and be a part of it.”

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Even though Griner was limited to 21 minutes, she still contributed 11 points and four rebounds in the Mercury’s 81-80 win over the Minnesota Lynx. And her impact couldn’t fully be measured in the box score. Her presence in the paint created opportunities for spacing and ball movement on offense, and her length on defense affected passing lanes and opposing players’ ability to get to the rim.

“Let’s just start with defensively. Nobody’s just going down there in the paint,” wing Kahleah Copper told reporters postgame. “It’s just not happening. And then offensively, [Griner] just opens up things for us. Nobody can guard her one-on-one on the block. And then you send the double [team] down, we got shooters spaced around it. We get it out. Maybe we get a re-post. It does a lot for us.”

It wasn’t just Griner making a long-awaited return to the floor. Forward Rebecca Allen also returned to the lineup after missing the Mercury’s last five games with a concussion. Allen, similar to Griner, used her length on defense to disrupt opponents’ offensive rhythm. 

Phoenix Mercury forward Rebecca Allen dribbles with her left hand on the perimeter, past a screen from center Natasha Mack.
Phoenix Mercury forward Rebecca Allen (11) drives off a screen from center Natasha Mack (4) during the Mercury’s home opener against the Atlanta Dream at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Ariz., on May 18, 2024. (Photo credit: Patrick Breen | The Republic)

Allen split time with point guard Natasha Cloud guarding Minnesota forward Napheesa Collier. Although she added crucial points for the Lynx down the stretch, Collier shot just 4-for-15 through three quarters thanks to Cloud and Allen’s combined efforts. 

Allen and Griner’s presence helped Phoenix make a stark turnaround from its game against Minnesota on the road on May 31. In that contest, the Lynx scored 32 points in the paint in a 95-71 blowout win. On Friday, the Mercury won the paint battle 34-18.

“What Bec Allen and BG give us defensively [is] just that length and size,” Phoenix head coach Nate Tibbetts told reporters postgame. Bec in the first quarter probably had four to six deflections, and then BG at the rim — they finished with 18 points in the paint. I don’t know how many they had last game against us, but it felt like 50. … Even on the jump ball, when she walked out there, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re big again.’”

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The returning players’ impact was felt throughout the game, but especially in the last three minutes. Griner hit two free throws to make it a four-point game at the 2:54 mark. Allen helped form a trap that prevented Lynx guard Kayla McBride from getting a shot or pass off before the shot clock expired with 45 seconds left and Phoenix still down by four. 

And in the biggest moment of the game, with the Mercury down by two, Griner caught guard Sophie Cunningham’s inbounds pass, handed it off to Copper and screened two players to give Copper just enough space to hit the game-winning 3-pointer.

“When it comes to the Commissioner’s Cup, it was a must-win, right?” Tibbetts said. “You lose this game and more than likely your chances drop drastically. … It was tough to watch our clips against this team from a week ago. We showed our team clips this morning and before the game of what we looked like, and it looked like we were playing in mud. I mean, we were moving slow. So a great bounce-back game for us. We needed this win just as a group.”

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Griner acknowledged she wasn’t perfect on the floor, but it was certainly a good sign for the Mercury to have her back to bolster their defense and expand their offensive options. And it was an important step for Griner to be able to show all of her efforts from the offseason.

“We’re just gonna keep building, keep getting better, keep locking in,” Griner said. “I need to catch those passes. That’s on me. … But it just feels good. We put in a lot of hard work in training camp, in the offseason and everything, and then seasons just go how they go sometimes, and sometimes you’re a little delayed.

“And just credit to the team. They held it down. They didn’t crumble. They [were] like, ‘We got this. We’re gonna hold it down for you.’”

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Written by Tia Reid

Tia Reid covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. Her other work has also appeared on NCAA.com, College Gym News, Cronkite News/Arizona PBS and the Walter Cronkite Sports Network. Tia is a senior at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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