The Phoenix Mercury split the first two games of Brittney Griner‘s absence as part of a three-game suspension.
PHOENIX – Brittney Griner has been inside Talking Stick Resort Arena all week.
The three-game suspension given to her by the WNBA does not, of course, prevent her from traveling with the team. More even than those reps with her teammates on the court, Griner’s presence has been felt on game day when she’s not allowed in the building.
Take the shirt worn by veteran guard and first-year Mercury player Essence Carson on Friday night when Phoenix hosted the Atlanta Dream.
Or the countless signs bearing Griner’s face (which you can see Carson’s mother waving in the imagine on the shirt) that filled the arena Wednesday as Phoenix hosted the Connecticut. Two games into a hotly debated suspension brought down upon Griner by the league, she’s been right there with her team all along. On Friday night, they responded with a 77-68 win over Atlanta, righting the ship as bottom-feeders try to seize an opportunity to squeeze Phoenix out of the last playoff spot.
Camille Little steps up as she nears the end
“Knowing that I’m done, it’s just fun now, just to play,” Little admitted in the locker room after her team’s win over the Dream.
In two games without Griner (and many prior to the suspension), the 13-year veteran, who announced earlier this year she would retire at the end of the season, has been massive. Though she’s averaged just five points, six rebounds and two steals across the two contests, she has stabilized the Mercury on both ends without the usual hub, Griner.
As with many veterans, it’s the little things that add up and make them so valuable on the court in tight situations, but Little’s first two years in Phoenix didn’t indicate she was capable of bringing this level of energy anymore. Little notably has been hesitant to shoot in the playoffs and was injured heading into this season. She’s hitting her stride now.
“She can recover, she can deny post players, she knows their tendencies,” coach Sandy Brondello said Friday. “I know what I’m getting with Camille day in and day out, and the bonus is she’s shooting the ball well.”
Ball movement and energy compensate for missing stars
After turning the ball over 19 times versus Connecticut, the Mercury inverted that number Friday against Atlanta, notching 19 assists on 27 made baskets compared with just 12 turnovers. Their aggressiveness puncturing the defense repeatedly within a single possession created good shots against the Dream.
“I keep demanding move the ball, move the ball because it’s hard to guard,” Brondello said. “And then attacking closeouts, we were creating (open looks).”
Brondello’s starting point guard, Leilani Mitchell, doesn’t need to be told twice to take what the defense gives. There may not be a more patient scoring guard in the league.
“We did a good job of encouraging each other to keep taking those open shots,” Mitchell said.
“The biggest thing for us today was, especially offensively, we played as a team. A lot of times, the ball stops, and we dribble around and wait for a screen, but we were making the extra pass, attacking closeouts, kicking it out for open shots. If we miss those, we miss them, but it’s when we dive in and try to shoot over two or three people, those are the bad ones.”
Opposing coaches react to Griner suspension, overall physicality
Dream coach Nicki Collen doesn’t have a center with the size of Griner, but her team still plays a swarming style of defense that is felt every possession. She understands the frustration of Griner, Brondello and the rest of the Mercury organization but believes there are ways Griner gets opponents back by using her size to her advantage.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt, there’s probably times when (Brondello) gets frustrated and should, because (Griner) gets beat on,” Collen, a former college guard, said. “At the same time, there are a lot of times when you’re 6-9 and you’re setting a screen and you’re putting your elbows at a guard’s level, there are times she clips people in that situation and doesn’t get called.
“We have a physical game. The officials are doing the best they can. The thing that I’ve found is as much as we want to complain about officiating, when you go back and watch games, you don’t win and lose games very often because of officials.”
The Dream are struggling mightily after a Cinderella story last year. They are 5-21 after losing to Phoenix, so Collen is likely not looking to the people who blow the whistles for excuses.
Coach Curt Miller and the Sun, on the other hand, are looking for explanations for how their league-leading offense from 2018-19 has dropped to fifth in the WNBA. He has seen the same leniency toward physicality in the paint that Griner warned of earlier this week.
“(Griner is) impossible to officiate,” Miller said. “I absolutely echo everything she says, that she absorbs even more contact than some of the WNBA centers, and because she can absorb it, because Sylvia Fowles can absorb it, they’re even played more physical. … I don’t know how Sandy stays collected and cool and calm as much as she does, because it is really, really hard to officiate Brittney Griner.”
The Mercury will have a different challenge against the fearsome post presence Tina Charles and the New York Liberty on Sunday afternoon in the final chapter of Griner’s absence.
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