Griner shows rust, scores 11 in winning '24 debut



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Nine-time WNBA All-Star star Brittney Griner made her season debut for the Mercury on Friday night against the Minnesota Lynx, posting 11 points and four rebounds in Phoenix’s 81-80 win over the visitors.

Griner fractured a toe in the preseason, sidelining her for the past month.

“Feels great,” Griner said. “Just sitting back and watching my team hold it down and play and compete, I was just chomping at the bit to get out there. So it just feels good being back with my team and being able to contribute and be a part of it.”

Mercury coach Nate Tibbetts told reporters this week that after going through return-to-play protocols over the past seven to 10 days, Griner practiced for the first time Thursday. She was on a minutes restriction against the Lynx, playing just 21.

With Rebecca Allen (concussion) also back on the floor for Phoenix after missing the past five games, Friday marked the first time the Mercury were at full strength this season.

“We’re just going to keep building, keep getting better and keep locking in. I need to get my timing down, get these butterfinger hands ready,” Griner said, referring to a few missed catches she had in Friday’s game.

Griner said she spent the offseason getting back into basketball shape. Last year, she was still making her way back into full form after spending nearly 10 months of 2022 detained in Russia.

She said that before her “unfortunate toe injury,” she was feeling the best she has felt. But she said, “Lives have ups and downs. You’ve just got to roll with it.”

Tibbetts said Griner’s injury was a tough blow because of how much hard work she had put in.

“I know when the injury happened how disappointed she was just because this was her first true offseason of work … and she was ready to have a big year,” Tibbetts said. “She’s excited to be back and we might be more excited to have her back.”

Said Griner: “We put in a lot of hard work in training camp and the offseason, everything, and then seasons just go how they go sometimes and sometimes you’re a little delayed. Credit to the team. They held it down. They didn’t crumble. They were like, ‘We got this, we’re going to hold it down for you.’ And I’m just proud of them.”

Friday night’s game concluded on a high note as Kahleah Copper (34 points) sank a winning 3-pointer with 0.7 second left. Phoenix trailed by six in the penultimate minute until Copper scored 10 points in the final 70 seconds to clinch the win.

Griner’s screen on that Copper 3-pointer allowed just enough room for the 2021 Finals MVP to hit her fifth and most important triple of the night.

“A great bounce-back game for us,” Tibbetts said. “We needed this win just as a group, adding Bec and BG. I thought Sophie [Cunningham] coming off the bench gave us good energy and it just kind of balances our roster out a little bit. It was exciting to see.”

The Mercury, now 5-6 under first-year coach Tibbetts, have taken more 3-pointers than any other team in the league (29.4 per game). Griner, a 6-foot-9 center, has been a force in the paint during her career, averaging 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.

Tibbetts sees Griner’s post presence as something that will bolster Phoenix’s interior defense and diversify its offensive options.

“It’s going to take us a little bit of time, when we throw it down there to her, when we don’t,” Tibbetts said of incorporating Griner into the offense. “I thought her screen-setting was really good tonight. She’s so physical, which provides openings for ball handlers. But yeah, we’re going to throw it down there more than we have in the past.”

Griner’s size is a welcome addition, too — without her, the Mercury had to play more small ball. Tibbetts pointed to how the Lynx had only 18 points in the paint Friday compared with 32 in their first matchup of the season.

“It’s huge. Literally,” Copper said of Griner’s impact. “Nobody’s just going down there in the paint. It’s not happening. And offensively it just opens up things for us. Nobody can guard her one on one on the block, and then you send a double and now we’ve got shooters spaced around her. … Having us at full strength tonight was great.”

Tibbetts added: “I think our best basketball is ahead of us.”



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