Brittney Griner's comeback season lifts the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA semifinals
There were questions coming into the season for Brittney Griner. Last year, the bubble environment proved to be too much for her. She left for undisclosed personal reasons after just 12 games. How would she and her team respond in 2021?
The answer to those questions couldn’t be better for the Phoenix Mercury. Griner returned with one of the best seasons of her career, finished second in the league’s MVP voting, won a spot on the AP All-WNBA first team, and has led the team to the semifinals. They dropped the opening game of the five-game series, but the pursuit of a fourth WNBA title is still alive.
When Skylar Diggins-Smith was signed by Phoenix prior to the 2020 season, she was meant to join Griner and Diana Taurasi as the third member of the Mercury’s “Big Three.” During her two seasons with the team, they have been unable to fully take advantage of the trio.
Last season, Griner had an abbreviated campaign and Taurasi missed several games due to injury. This year, Taurasi missed 16 of the team’s 32 regular-season games and the team’s first playoff game against the New York Liberty with injuries. Although Diggins-Smith has not missed an outing in the past two seasons, either Taurasi or Griner has been out in 32 of 59 games. Both missed the contest against the Atlanta Dream on Sept. 8.
After relying so heavily on Taurasi and Diggins-Smith to carry the load for the Mercury last year, it was up to Griner and Diggins-Smith this year. It was the perfect time for Griner to have a resurgent year.
In her ninth season in the league, Griner averaged 20.5 points per game on 57.5 percent shooting. Both of those numbers are close to career highs. Her 84.6 percent shooting from the free-throw line was a career mark as were her 9.5 rebounds per game. Her 1.9 blocks per game were enough to lead the league for the eighth time in her nine seasons. She moved to No. 2 on the postseason blocks list with 87 in her career.
What’s been the difference this year? According to her coach, it’s a combination of the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of the game coming together, as well as a settled life outside basketball.
“She’s letting the game come to her,” Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello said. “She's playing with poise and I think that just comes from maturity as you just have more experience as a basketball player. And I think all players would say that they get way smarter after playing 10 plus years in this league. And she's very calm. She's happy. She's happy off the court. It shows with her performances on the court. But she just gets better and better, and I think back in 2014 when I took over that's why I said the sky's the limit for BG.”
The time away may have been a key to Griner’s dominating season. She took advantage of that period to see a counselor and rest before returning to her Russian team to pursue yet another championship overseas.
“It helped big time,” Griner said before the season. “I didn't go overseas until January, either. So, I mean, just having that break. Honestly, it was my first break I've had since college. Like, college straight, straight in overseas, WNBA, World Championships, the Olympics in Rio. It's always like this. Just go, go, go, go, go. And, you know, I hate that it had to come in the middle of the season last year how I did everything, but it was such a good reset, and a good moment at that time for me to just be able to breathe, rest and get myself together fully. Actually fully, not rush trying to do it.”
That time may well be why she was able to average over 20 points for the fourth time in five seasons. If it was, Phoenix made good use of it. With any dominant player, the hope is that the attention she garners opens things up for the rest of the team. That has been the case for the Mercury.
“We obviously know that (stopping Griner is) everyone's game plan,” Taurasi said. “It would be my game plan, too. And we all know how just dominant BG has been not only this year but throughout her career, so that's when you really have to rely on everyone to make sure we're all focused on what we need to do. And obviously, her touches are our priority, but at the same time we need to make sure everyone's involved, everyone's tuned in, focused on being aggressive, being threats out there. And I think that makes BG's job a little bit easier.”
The combination of a career year from Griner and the return of Taurasi have led the Mercury back to the semifinals for the first time since 2018. That’s exactly what Diggins-Smith was aiming for when she arrived in Phoenix.
“I came to Phoenix for a reason and that was to play with these two,” Diggins-Smith said. “This is my first series. I've been in the league for nine years. Obviously, it's tough with this format. If you don't really get a top-two position, you got to play one of these (single-elimination) games. And for us, last year in the bubble, I was disappointed how it went down versus Minnesota.”
This season, with Griner rejoining the other two members of the Big Three, they were able to clear that second-round hurdle. The center credits her teammates with the positive reinforcement that helped her get to the point where she feels she can dominate. That doesn’t mean there’s no accountability.
“Nine years in the league, I learned a lot,” Griner said. “Learning from D, learning from Sky, learning from everybody. Just soaking in everything. And they've always been super encouraging to me no matter what.”
“Sometimes,” Taurasi interjected.