The Secrets Behind Brittney Griner's Career Year and WNBA Finals DominanceOctober 15, 2021
PHOENIX — In an arena of 13,685 people, the Phoenix Mercury lacked energy to start the game on Wednesday night. It looked like a continuation of Sunday afternoon when Phoenix played Game 1 of the WNBA Finals 40 hours after Game 5 of the semis. The Mercury had turnovers early in the first quarter. The X-Factor (Phoenix's dedicated fanbase) was growing frustrated. It couldn't bear to see its team get whupped at home once again.
Brittney Griner wasn't going to let that happen.
When Griner came off setting a screen for Diana Taurasi near the half-court logo, she hopped down to the paint and moved off the Chicago Sky's Azura Stevens to catch the ball at an opportune position on the block. Shey Peddy hauled a pass right to Griner a few feet off the block.
She turned and dribbled full speed ahead toward the basket. With no one in her path, it was time. She leaps. She's airborne. She dunks. The result: X-Factor roared and stood up from their seats. It was a one-point game.
Griner finished Game 2 with 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting along with nine boards, one assist and two blocks. Her buckets came everywhere: deeper catches on the block, wide-open long twos or even pick-and-rolls alongside Skylar Diggins-Smith. Everywhere, Griner felt comfortable.
Griner has always had the potential to play like this, but she's shown another level of dominance this year.
"I think we take for granted sometimes how amazing she is," teammate Diana Taurasi said.
Griner's gear-shift is now on center stage in 2021 WNBA Finals, which are tied 1-1.
In years past, Griner wouldn't have been this aggressive on the boards, surprising because of her size. But this past season, she's averaged 9.5 rebounds a game, the best average of her career.
But ask around, and it's the intangibles that are really the difference.
What's the secret?
I asked Griner on Tuesday how leaving last year's Wubble early and getting therapy shortly after helped her become a better person and leader on her team. She noted that counseling allowed her to become a more equipt communicator, something she's struggled with in the past.
"I'll let you know a little bit on BG," she said. "I'm not the best communicator sometimes. That was something that I definitely worked on in counseling and then hearing somebody else's side you know and like really hearing it, and not just trying to overpower my side.
"So I think just being able to talk and calm down and, you know, not being in the heat of the moment, actually getting out words of essence."
Head coach Sandy Brondello has noticed a difference in Griner. When she first started coaching the 6'9" star, she didn't play even-keeled. She was either too high or too low. But now Griner plays with a certain calm.
Her work in counseling has given her more confidence to be more of a vocal leader on the Mercury, a team known to revolve around the voice of Taurasi.
Third-year teammate Sophie Cunningham has noticed this, too. She's seen her evolution and believes Griner has played her best basketball ever this year.
"I've seen so much growth, she's playing the best basketball she's played in her whole life and, yeah, she communicates well on the court," she said before Game 2. "She's like, ‘Hey, look at this and this,' and she's never done that. So I think she's starting to step up and become that leader that we need her to be."
Griner credits Taurasi as a key confidant, including when she once "came back to Phoenix randomly" to have a sit-down heart-to-heart. The two have been together not only on the Mercury but also for a time overseas in Russia and on USA Basketball. She remembered a moment overseas when she and Taurasi had a profound conversation in a bathroom.
"We just had the longest heart-to-heart," she said. "Tears from me a little bit. Her genuinely being there for me, talking to me, saying stuff, us relating back-and-forth with stories from the past. I think that was, like, one of the biggest moments that I'll always cherish."
Griner taking the time she needed away from the game and seeking help allowed her to return to training camp this season as focused as Brondello has ever seen her star. She fell back in love with the game after suffering through a time when she wasn't OK.
These Finals are extra meaningful to Griner because they showcase her growth not only as a basketball player who has expanded her game—but also her maturity as a veteran presence in the Mercury's locker room. She's a future Hall of Famer whose career has until now been defined by her shortcomings, as my colleague Howard Megdal pointed out.
This season in particular she's put it together in a way that stands out. On a team with not as much depth as her opponent and many of her opponents this season, she's rebounded the ball better, had almost three assists per game and focused heavily on being disruptive defensively.
"Obviously she got the help she needed, but it's about maturity too," Brondello said. "I think when you're happier off the court, you know you're comfortable where you're at, that allows you to come back, and I think she fell in love with the game a little bit, and the break allowed her to freshen up a little bit as well."
Brondello also referred to Griner as a one of the "big kids," someone who's very playful and loves spending time with children. That was on full display during the postgame presser when she answered questions with her nephew on her lap. The child made babbling noises while Griner smiled through the presser of a game she had just helped her team grind out.
If the Mercury build off Wednesday night's momentum, Griner's Game 2 dominance in a thrilling 91-86 overtime win will be looked back upon as a key turning point.
Griner entered Game 2 wanting to be more aggressive than she was in Sunday's Game 1 defeat. Even if her shots didn't fall, she needed to just keep going. In Game 2, she wanted to make sure she was getting deeper positioning, which clearly worked Wednesday night.
Defensively, she also had to adapt. She wasn't positioned where her team needed her to be. She didn't fall for the trap from the Sky's versatile bigs and instead dared them to make their threes. She rarely left the paint.
When Chicago's Courtney Vandersloot and Kahleah Copper pressed into the paint, Griner's lateral movements kept them at bay. In overtime, Griner took away a look from Allie Quigley coming off a flare screen. Candace Parker was looking for her, but Griner switched to keep her body in front of the Sky's sharpest shooter. A 6'9" presence was lurking over the Sky's backcourt. With a tied game at 86 and 1:34 left, Griner extended her right arm out wide to block Copper's shot.
The Sky wouldn't score any more than 86. Griner wouldn't accept it.