Upon visiting the Columbus Zoo to view the Christmas lights this past winter, our group was taken to the polar bear exhibit. The trainers informed us that while extremely cute, polar bears are killing machines and that you could survive for mere minutes—if that—were you to fall into their enclosure. There is no escape, there is nowhere to hide. The polar bears will find you and feast on you without remorse.
That’s kind of how it feels when you’re watching Brittney Griner. There’s an imminent sense of danger when she gets the ball on the low block or she’s standing anywhere inside six feet of the basket on defense. And there’s nothing you can do to stop her. Brittney Griner is inevitable.
It would be a stretch to say the Phoenix Mercury were a one-woman show in their 87-82 win over the Seattle Storm on Sunday night, but Griner impacted the game more than anybody else on the floor. If you were to compile a supercut of Dick Fain and Elise Woodward saying something to the effect of “there’s nothing you can do” in reference to Griner, then you’d basically have the entire broadcast.
Griner finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. The numbers don’t do justice to how dominant she was, especially on defense. Griner’s presence alone was often enough to dissuade Storm players from trying to score inside.
Jordin Canada was an excellent finisher at UCLA. Inside the final minute of the first half, Courtney Paris helped Canada shed Leilani Mitchell for what might have otherwise been a layup to end the half. Instead, Canada wanted no part of Griner and settled for a jumper at the foul line that hit the front rim.
“If you’re looking at a difference maker in the game from their standpoint, it was that,” Storm head coach Dan Hughes said of Griner’s performance, per the Seattle Times‘ Percy Allen. “Some of the other points we were wanting to defend we were in the game with, but Griner created some separation and had a big impact on the game.”
Hughes made some mid-game adjustments to try and counteract Griner. He had the Storm double team her as soon as she got the ball. Crystal Langhorne 15 minutes, two fewer than Courtney Paris, the latter of whom was relatively solid when defending Griner. On offense, Seattle attempted 27 three-pointers in an effort to render Griner less effective at the rim.
All of that should continue in Wednesday’s game, and it will be interesting to see additional what tweaks Hughes makes.
As crazy as it sounds, attacking Griner early in the game may not be a bad idea. She picked up an average of 3.4 fouls per game in 2017, and she got into early foul trouble in the Mercury’s opener against the Dallas Wings. Griner can’t impact the game if she’s on the bench, and she may not be as aggressive on defense if she’s carrying two or three early fouls.
There’s reason to believe Seattle can avenge Sunday’s defeat. The Storm out-rebounded the Mercury 37-28, which was a major problem for the team last year, and they were within one possession of tying the game despite Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd combining to go 6-of-19 from the field. Langhorne only had two points, both of which came from the foul line.
Seattle outscored Phoenix 46-41 in the second half, and had they played five more minutes against the Mercury, the Storm may have come out on top.
Of course, the positivity generated by Seattle’s strong finish will evaporate quickly if the team is outclassed by Phoenix over four quarters Wednesday night.
Matchup to Watch
Sue Bird vs. Briann January
As good as Griner was, Briann January’s performance against the Storm shouldn’t go unnoticed. She finished with 15 points, four rebounds and six assists, and her 112.7 offensive rating was second-best of the game.
January owed some of her success to Bird’s defense—or lack thereof. Bird had the second-worst defensive rating (113.5) on the Storm on Sunday.
Bird is coming off a 2017 season in which she had the highest defensive rating (105.0) of her career. Opponents looked to exploit the 37-year-old in pick and rolls and with movement off the ball. According to Synergy Sports, she allowed a.534 adjusted field-goal percentage in pick and rolls and a .522 adjusted field-goal percentage on spot-up opportunities.
As important as Griner and Diana Taurasi are to the Mercury, January is the floor general. There’s a reason Phoenix sent Danielle Robinson to the Minnesota Lynx and sent the eighth overall pick to the Indiana Fever in order to get the 2014 All-Star.
The Storm will have a hard time winning if January is once again besting Bird and meeting little resistance as she runs Phoenix’s offense.
Stats That Mean Nothing (or Everything)
- The Storm are now 1-1 at home against the Mercury under Dan Hughes but remain undefeated on the road (1-0)
- Miley Cyrus released “Party in the U.S.A.” on Aug. 11, 2009; since then, Seattle is 21 games over .500 (142-121)
- Teana Muldrow has yet to lose to the Mercury in games in which she appeared #SecretWeapon
- 2018 is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac; that has happened only one other time since Seattle entered the WNBA, in 2006 when the Storm lost to the Los Angeles Sparks in the opening round of the playoffs