MVP candidates square off as Mercury host Sparks (Jun 9, 2017)

BY AP • June 9, 2017

Two early leaders in the race for WNBA MVP will meet for the first time this season when the Los Angeles Sparks play at the Phoenix Mercury on Saturday.

The Mercury (5-3) are led by 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner, who has, for the first time, become the focus of the offense after an offseason in which the team changed 10 players on the roster. Griner is averaging a league-best 24.1 points per game and is coming off a career-best 38-point effort in a win at Indiana on Wednesday.

"She's played great all season," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. "We need her. We're still getting used to each other, getting that chemistry, but she's very reliable."

The defending WNBA champion Sparks (4-3) feature the reigning MVP in 6-2 forward Nneka Ogwumike, whose 22.1-point scoring average is second in the league. She had a season-high 28 in Friday night's 96-90 loss at the Dallas Wings.

Los Angeles' frontcourt also has veteran 6-4 center Candace Parker, a four-time first-team All-WNBA player. She is coming off a season-high 25 points against the Wings.

Griner has been known more as a shot-blocking defensive ace, twice earning the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award. While she is averaging 8.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks this season, she has showed an array of offense near the basket, using turnarounds, hooks and spot-up jumpers.

Some teams have no answer for her height, but Parker has seen plenty of the fifth-year pro. She had two double-doubles against Phoenix in 2016, averaging 19.0 points and 10.3 rebounds. Griner averaged 12 points and nine rebounds.

"Regardless of who we're playing she's 6-foot-8," Brondello said of Griner, who is listed as an inch taller. "She's playing great. (The goal) is to get the ball in there as much as we can without losing the flow of the offense."

The Mercury's second scoring option is guard Diana Taurasi, who is averaging 17.4 points. Guard Leilani Mitchell is a boost off the bench, scoring 12.6 points.

The Sparks are playing on back-to-back nights for the first time this season. They are 1-3 on the road.

Los Angeles won two of three meetings with Phoenix last season, although the Mercury did win the one game at home at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

The Sparks are averaging 85.6 points, second best in the league, with new starting point guard Chelsea Gray running the show. She is averaging 13.6 points and 4.1 assists.

"I think she's started off pretty well," Sparks coach Brian Agler told ESPN.com. "I know our team has a chance to be as good as it possibly can if she's playing well."


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