The world gravitated toward the Phoenix Mercury with the return of their star center, Brittney Griner. After being wrongfully detained in Russia, the former Baylor product announced she would play in the 2023 WNBA season, leaving many people questioning if this was the right move. After all, this was Griner’s first game in 579 days.
Any doubters were left in awe, as Griner posted 18 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 assists in 25 minutes. Phoenix lost 71-94 but the support from fans, coaches and players alike made it all worthwhile. Griner explained the feeling from the opposing crowd as she graced the floor.
“The love from the fans when I came out was amazing,” Griner said. “I definitely felt that. I didn’t experience that for a while.”
Her ability to dominate was exactly what the Mercury needed after enduring a season of uncertainty, doubt and fear. Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard shared how the season opener wasn’t about the game, but who was playing in that game.
“Till the day we got the news that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen,” Nygaard said. “The emotion that we went through last year as a group was hard to process. It was heavy every day. We did our jobs probably with less joy than professional athletes typically do. So it’s great to have this game today. Today is a day of joy.”
After the home opener, the Mercury still had a goose egg in the win column. Giving Brittney Griner the ball and getting out of the way is successful, but it’s not enough to sustain for an entire game, let alone the whole season. BG didn’t miss a beat in her home opener, posting 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks and 1 assist. The double-teams came and went, yet it wasn’t enough to stop or even limit the former first overall pick. Phoenix still lost 75-69 to the Chicago Sky in their home opener.
Despite the loss, Griner had a simple explanation for finding her rhythm this quickly on both sides of the ball after not playing for over a year.
“Just getting back into it, just practicing everyday, going hard,” she said. “Teammates believe in me, supporting me, that means a lot. Like I said in that preseason game, my defense was horrible. So I knew that was like my big focus coming out because you can always have effort. So just coming out and having a good defensive game trying to have another good one and then trying to get the offense going.”
Defensive issues vs. Sky
The Mercury’s defense shortcomings were all too prevalent, especially in the pick-and-roll. Ball-handlers Courtney Williams and Kahleah Copper and Chicago’s bigs, either Elizabeth Williams or Alanna Smith feasted. The guards either consistently initiated switches or forced Phoenix to communicate, which wasn’t exactly there in this game. Chicago did whatever they wanted with the pick-and-roll, whether it was a 3-pointer, a pull-up midrange jumper or simply slashing to the basket and getting free throws.
Turnovers were also an area for much-needed improvement. It wasn’t just the turnovers, but rather, unforced turnovers – the ball slipping out of someone’s hands, not reading the screener correctly, or over-anticipating someone to be in a spot. Nygaard explained how the unforced turnovers were unacceptable and how the timing of players will continue to improve.
“Anybody who was on the team last year that wasn’t previously here is new with BG as well,” Nygaard said. “So just working this time working on those things but there will be a lot of focus placed on that because that number is still way too high.
“Those are possessions that could be shots, we get an eight, you know, we get 15 more shots for the 41 percent, we have a much better chance, and maybe some of those 3s in a close game like this, take away five of those turnovers and we get five more chances to take a shot, it would be a big difference for us. A lot of those were in transition too, which is disappointing. So yeah, we’re going to focus on that work. Clean it up. And hopefully that’ll be by Thursday.”
Great chemistry = great basketball
In Thursday’s game against the Lynx, the unforced turnovers were a thing of the past. Although they had 18 turnovers, a decent margin were offensive fouls as opposed to solely bad plays. There were some that stood out, like a Diana Taurasi pass to Sug Sutton that went a few feet past her reach or Kadi Sissoko dribbling baseline and the ball hitting the line. Despite the high number, they figured out offensively what to do.
It wasn’t solely about giving BG the ball but giving everyone else the ball. Five Phoenix players had eight shot attempts or more, all while scoring in double figures. They also hit their 3s – 13, to be exact, which was nonexistent in the team’s first two games.
Taurasi had 23 points and 10 assists, along with four 3-pointers, making her the oldest player in league history to post a 20-point game.
Taurasi’s response to making history again set a sentiment the whole team had after their victory.
“I missed a free throw and two open looks,” Taurasi said.
The starters shot 50 percent from 3 for the game and showed a new sight: using Griner as a decoy at times, rather than a scoring option. Double-teams flew her way, but it was swing pass after swing pass to find an open player for 3. She ended the first half with only 7 points and 4 rebounds, but she was a +25. Griner’s ability to not only block shots but more importantly alter them limited the Lynx to 40 percent shooting from the field.
On defense, Phoenix regained a near 100 percent Sophie Cunningham, which makes a difference for this team. Her ability to play multiple positions, change between guard and forward, plus the elite shooting, played a significant role as well. In the words of Taurasi, the former 2019 draft pick is the team’s X-factor.
“There’s always that player that changes the dynamic of your team and for us, that’s Sophie,” Taurasi said. “The way she shoots the ball, competes and her energy. You just feel like the game changes when she’s in the game. To have her back changes everything.”
Phoenix missed Cunningham’s versatility in the previous two contests. Although she played 19 minutes in Sunday’s game against the Chicago Sky, the majority of it was in the first half. Even then, she only contributed 2 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists, with both of her points coming at the charity stripe.
Her health improved on Thursday, as the former Missouri star played 25 minutes and posted 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and shot 3-for-8 from deep. Cunningham wasn’t focused on her quality of play, but rather, letting her teammates go to work.
“I’m annoyed because I should’ve made more 3s and more shots,” Cunningham said. “But I think our offense felt better in general. D’s going to get hers, we needed to get more people involved, and I think we did that tonight.”
More people were involved against Minnesota, with five players posting double-digit scoring totals. Each of those players also shot 40 percent or higher from the field in the win. With the team coming together, Cunningham credits an area of the game that might not get the love it deserves.
“I think it started with our defense,” she said. “I think in the first half we got some solid stops and really limited their second-shot opportunities, and when we did that, we just went. If we didn’t get to the point guard or whoever had the ball, we just went. We got transition buckets and things we normally don’t have.”
Even with the team having to wait over a week to play the Sparks at home, the continuity has to be a focal point in order to build on the momentum of Thursday’s win.
“We have to do things differently,” Cunningham said. “Obviously, BG is going to get hers, she’s a double-double machine, but that’s not going to win us the ball game. Everybody has to get involved, and I think we did that tonight.”