PHOENIX — It might sound goofy, but there are times Brittney Griner needs to remind herself to be “big.”
You might think it impossible for Phoenix’s 6-foot-8 center to be anything but big, right? The thing is, there is big, and then there is B-I-G.
“It means having my arms up, stretched out wide,” Griner said Monday. “I guess I forget sometimes.”
At those times, assistant coach Todd Troxel, in his first season with the Mercury, will jog Griner’s memory. Troxel has worked with numerous WNBA and NBA players and specializes in skills development.
“He’ll show me clips of where I was playing big and where I was small,” Griner said, though it goes without saying that in this case “small” is a relative term. “And when I see it, I’ll say, ‘You’re right.’ I just have to make that conscious effort to remember that.”
Suffice it to say Griner loomed very large Sunday, as Phoenix took Game 1 of the WNBA Finals with an 83-62 victory over Chicago. Griner had 12 points, seven rebounds and eight blocks. She was such a force on defense that she would have been one of the game’s most valuable players even if she hadn’t scored a point.
“I want to be known for defense,” Griner said. “Offense is great, but defense wins championships.
“Every day, I’m thinking about it and how to get better. I’ve learned how to be stronger but also when and when not to use a lot of energy. Last year, I was doing a lot of moving that was unnecessary, so I would make myself tired, versus this year, when I know when to move and need to exert more energy.”
While it’s always great fun for Griner to block shots — and for the Mercury fans to react — that’s only one aspect of her defense. Griner’s ability to help and then get back to protect the basket showcases how much ground she can cover quickly. Against such a talented opposing center as Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles, that’s all the more important.
“People will see the eight blocks and believe that’s where she made the biggest impact,” teammate Diana Taurasi said of Griner. “But her biggest presence was on the show and recover — being able to stop the ball and get back to Sylvia, which is pretty much impossible to do with Syl’s athleticism and how explosive she is, but BG did it.”
When you ask Griner her philosophy about playing defense now, as opposed to when she started at Baylor, she laughs.
“I didn’t know anything. I was just trying to block shots then,” Griner said. “Now, I know how to be patient.”
Griner set the Division I record for blocked shots while at Baylor and finished her college career with 736. This year, she set the single-season block record in the WNBA with 129; she has 20 in the playoffs. Blocks are important to her. They are part of her identity. But she’s also refined her technique with blocks.
“I thought early in the year, when she went to block shots, she would still carry through and foul people,” Brondello said. “So we talked about keeping your distance. I try to put her in schemes that suit her athleticism and keep her close to the basket as much as we can. Her anticipation — she’s always been good at that — but I think she’s gone to another level.”
Griner’s ability to so successfully be part of the Mercury’s team defense is something she has pride in, as well. Defending the pick and roll is an essential element to defense at this level, and Taurasi said Griner has made “life easier for all of us on the perimeter.” Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said she thinks Griner’s pick-and-roll defense has been her biggest area of improvement in her second season.
“I’m able to take more risks because we move well as a team,” Griner said. “I know when to help, and when not to. Before, sometimes I would over-help and create offense for the other team.”
By “before” she’s specifically referring to her rookie season. As good as Griner was in college, the No. 1 draft pick of 2013 still had a lot to learn. The Mercury parted with coach Corey Gaines during Griner’s first year, and teaching defense had not been Gaines’ strength.
This year, with Brondello taking over, the Mercury’s commitment to defense has been obvious, and Griner has improved individually as much or more as the team has collectively.
“We show a lot of film, but the credit goes to BG,” Brondello said. “She’s locked in. She wanted to improve from her first year, and she did. She bought in.”
Penny Taylor was part of the Mercury’s 2007 and 2009 championship teams that did not have a weapon inside such as Griner. What Taylor most appreciates about Griner is how quickly she can incorporate instruction into her performance.
“She’s someone you can say something to once, and she’ll go out and do it the next play,” Taylor said. “She picks up things really quickly. She gets a lot of information thrown at her, but she takes it on board, she listens and she implements things in games.
“To do it in practice is one thing, but she does it in games. I’ve been so impressed with her ability to learn and develop.”
Phoenix rookie reserve Tiffany Bias, who went against Griner and Baylor as Oklahoma State’s point guard, is also impressed.
“In college, she affected the game, obviously, but I think not as much as she does now,” Bias said of Griner’s defense. “Her footwork is better, her court vision and just her confidence. You can tell she’s really worked at it.”
Now, Chicago has to attempt to keep Griner from dictating play again in Tuesday’s Game 2 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). The Sky players talked Monday about spacing and trying to lure Griner out of her comfort zone defensively. The problem is, it’s hard to get her to a place now where she’snot comfortable.
Especially in the first half of Sunday’s game, Griner made it very difficult for Chicago to get entry passes. The Sky tried just about everything short of going up to the rafters and parachuting the ball inside. Of course, that wouldn’t have worked, either.
“She can cover a lot of ground because she’s so long,” Chicago guard Allie Quigley said. “Watching film, we can see what passes have a better chance of working. Lobs aren’t going to work as much. It needs to be lot of bounce passes and keeping your dribble. It’s taking what’s open and not trying to force what you want.”
The Sky’s primary interior target, Fowles, said she has to adjust, and Griner makes even her alter her shot somewhat. That’s not something the 6-foot-6 Fowles is used to doing.
“But I definitely still like playing against her — she brings the best out of you,” said Fowles, who had 19 points but was 8-of-20 from the field Sunday. “She makes you think. And you have to credit somebody who forces you go out there and work hard to do things.”
(Article via ESPNW)