Griner hopes to measure up as big difference-maker vs. Lynx
PHOENIX — Both Western Conference finalists will stroll into this matchup made in basketball heaven accompanied by three WNBA All-Stars, including the top two vote-getters in the 2014 Most Valuable Player derby.
The preconceived tactics and on-the-fly adjustments of each squad will be presented by a one-time league Coach of the Year.
Players now cast in supporting roles for both sides are stars. Their team-oriented statistics are dangerously similar. The history of success attributed to both franchises is disturbingly familiar.
And that’s why the Western Conference finals series — co-starring the Mercury and Minnesota Lynx — beginning Friday at U.S. Airways Center is so compelling.
But looming above this clash of WNBA powerhouses is one candidate for difference-maker who’s just scratching the voluminous surface of her deep potential.
Take a bow, Brittney Griner.
Provide us with some professional perspective, Diana Taurasi.
"If there is one offset," Taurasi said, "across the board, both teams are pretty similar as far as stature. She’s a little bit bigger than everyone else on the court. She’s going to have to make that presence felt."
Griner, now hitting her considerable stride after injuries and expectation mitigated the impact she provided as a Mercury rookie, certainly impacted Game 2 of the conference semis.
After struggling — like most of her teammates not named Taurasi — through the series opener with the Los Angeles Sparks, the former Baylor All-American provided Phoenix with a career playoff-high 21 points during a Game 2 route in L.A.
The 6-foot-8 Griner didn’t miss a shot (9 of 9 from the field, 3 of 3 at the line) but was credited with only two rebounds.
While the low-post scoring dominance was welcomed, her all-around dirty work — blocked shots and boards — was consistent this season and sufficient for Griner to rank second behind Minnesota’s Maya Moore in basketball-reference.com’s individual rankings for win shares.
With her major emphasis on rim protection, Griner established a league record for blocked shots in a season (129), helping Phoenix rank first among WNBA teams in defensive efficiency. That deterrent status has become a given. What now registers as bonus impact is Griner’s evolving game on the post.
"I just have to establish myself down low," Griner said. "Be smart with the ball. When the trap comes, just get the ball to the right person."
That ability to command double teams is an obvious boost to Mercury bombers such as Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Erin Phillips or mid-range-oriented cutters named Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor.
Based on what occurred in Los Angeles last Sunday, the Lynx may have to double Griner and take their chances in rotation.
She comes to every game with that aggression to dominate on every single play. We need that from her, that’s how dynamic she is.
Diana Taurasi on teammate Brittney Griner
Despite L.A.’s strength and depth in the post, the Sparks — like every other team in this league — had no match for a dialed-in Griner.
"She wasn’t happy with the way she played in the first L.A. game," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. "She responded, and that’s the good thing. She told me, ‘I’m good to go.’ That shows her mental toughness and the stage in her career she’s at right now."
After her well-chronicled, skill-development breakthrough while playing in China between her first two WNBA seasons, Griner returned to Phoenix with a higher level of self-awareness.
"She’s brought it every game," Taurasi said. "That starts with on the practice floor. She’s coming with a different focus every single day, compared to last year. She comes to every game with that aggression to dominate on every single play. We need that from her, that’s how dynamic she is."
As previously referenced, injury and expectation sidetracked any stab at being dynamic during her rookie season. But with hoops trainer Dean Demopolous (a former NBA assistant coach) providing low-post lessons between her team obligations in China, Brittney has been able to tweak the trajectory of that stardom arc.
As a WNBA sophomore, she increased her scoring average from 12.6 to 15.6, lifted her field-goal accuracy by 2 percentage points and her free-throw success rate by 8. The stuff that’s a bit more difficult to track — timely passes out of doubles, patience on the post — is off the charts now.
Against a team as formidable as the Lynx, the Mercury may need all of what Griner has to offer.
In four games against the Lynx this season (the Mercury won three), Griner provided Phoenix with an average of 19.5 points, including 27 in a 92-79 route on June 18. But her work on defense (12 total blocks) helped prevent the Lynx from reaching 80 points in three of those battles.
"Defense wins games," Griner said. "Anybody can put up points, but keeping the other team from scoring is so important. A lot of that comes from our chemistry and from Sandy. All season, she’s had us ready . . . every day, every game, every minute. There’s nothing they (Lynx) do that we don’t know."
That goes both ways, reminding us execution — at both ends of the floor — is the key to coming out of the Western Conference. Given her stature, Griner stands out as the potential executioner. And it’s not like she’s without this way-above-average portfolio.
"I need her to do what she’s done all season long," Brondello said. "If she has a dominant mindset . . . working hard to get deep in the paint, having good poise against traps and her shot-blocking ability . . . that makes it so hard to guard.
"BG’s ready. She’s really matured as a player. I think she’s a much better player now than she was at the start of the year. It comes through confidence. Obviously, understanding what’s asked of her. She’s very coachable and that’s what makes her a special player. She’s going to keep getting better. We haven’t seen the limit of what she can do. And that’s the great thing . . . that she’s improved this year, but she’s going to keep improving."