The Phoenix Mercury are the biggest winners of the WNBA’s new playoff format so far. The 16-18 team barely reached the postseason, clinching the final spot with just two games left in the season. Wednesday night, they begin a semifinal series with the defending champion Minnesota Lynx after two wins over the Indiana Fever and New York Liberty.
The league’s new playoff system placed the bottom four playoff teams in single-elimination games and reseeded them to play the next-best pair of teams in the same manner. The Mercury had the worst odds of advancing since they had to play twice on the road against the strongest teams in both rounds, but they proved that home-court advantage wasn’t much of one.
As Sue Bird asked SB Nation a few weeks ago, “If I’m a higher-seeded team, do I want to play at home against a team that’s on the rise? I don’t know.”
The Mercury are that team on the rise. After posting the league’s worst defense for two-thirds of the season, they’re three wins from the WNBA Finals. They can thank Brittney Griner’s re-emergence for that.
The regular season wasn’t Griner’s finest stretch. She posted the worst statistical showing of her young career, averaging just 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Her shooting dropped 2 percentage points, she lost a block per game off her previous-year average and snagged and nearly two fewer rebounds.
Minnesota swept three early-season meetings between the Lynx and Mercury by rendering Griner ineffective, forcing her into foul trouble for two of the three games. But since the Olympic break, Griner, and the Mercury, have looked more like their normal selves.
Phoenix finished the season 6-4 after starting 10-14 and surrendered nearly three fewer points per 100 possessions during that stretch. At the same time, Griner’s numbers more closely approached her career averages.
When Griner is able to anchor her team defensively and score consistently, the Mercury start to look like the championship contender many expected before the season began. That’s carried over to the playoffs, as she’s averaging 20 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in the two victories.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into her, but she’s playing like the best post player in the world and that’s what we need from her,” fellow Mercury star Diana Taurasi told WNBA.com. “She’s in her prime right now. We need that every night.”
Perimeter-shooting bigs limited Griner in the beginning of the season. They lured her away from the basket, which meant she wasn’t in position to disrupt the lane as often.
But the Fever and Liberty couldn’t replicate that game plan in the postseason, and Griner swatted four shots against the Liberty after turning away two in Indiana. Phoenix assigned Griner to Carolyn Swords or Kiah Vaughn, neither of whom are outside threats. That meant Griner could slide off either and help on Tina Charles, who shot just 5-for-12 from the field and was blocked twice by Griner.
Though the Lynx are favored in this next series, they’re a good matchup for Griner as well. Lynx center Sylvia Fowles’ game rests around the rim, much like Charles’. If Griner can guard her and still lurk in the lane like she did against New York, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen will have less room to attack the basket.
The Lynx could replace Fowles with backup Janel McCarville to stretch the floor or go smaller with Natasha Howard at center, but neither can guard Griner on the other end. That’s why the Mercury could give the Lynx a semifinals scare.
Doing so may seem like a surprise if it happens, but the better question is why it took the Mercury so long. They have seven players still left from the 2014 title team, and with Griner, Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Dewanna Bonner, and Candice Dupree, they certainly have the star power to match Minnesota. Thanks to Griner’s resurgence, a series victory is possible.
With Taurasi entering her mid-30s and Taylor retiring, the Mercury picked the right time to finally get Griner going.