WNBA: How the return of Brittney Griner boosts the Phoenix Mercury

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After losing five of six games, the Phoenix Mercury (6-6) have responded with two-straight wins, squeaking out a last-second win over the Minnesota Lynx and a double-overtime victory over the Dallas Wings.

It’s no coincidence that Phoenix escaped their rut and reached .500 when—finally—able to sport their intended starting lineup, as Brittney Griner made her season debut after being sidelined by a foot injury since training camp and Rebecca Allen returned to the court after missing five games while in concussion protocol.

Thursday night, the Mercury play their final Commissioner’s Cup game, hosting the Las Vegas Aces (10 p.m. ET, Prime Video). If Phoenix wins and the Seattle Storm lose their game in Dallas, the Mercury will represent the Western Conference in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship, meeting the New York Liberty in Brooklyn on June 25.

Let’s take a look at Phoenix’s three American Olympians for some reasons for purple-and-orange optimism.

BG’s back!

In her season debut against Minnesota, Griner played just 21 minutes, scoring 11 points and grabbing four boards. Still, Griner was a plus-13 in the one-point win, an indication of the positive power of her presence. That presence proved more powerful and productive when Phoenix downed Dallas in double overtime. Ramping up to 39 minutes, Griner dropped an efficient 24 points, in addition to nine boards and five assists. She also was a plus-12, the second-highest plus-minus on the team.

That the Mercury have outscored their opponents by double digits in their two wins with Griner should allay any concerns about how she might fit with the more uptempo style the team embraced in her absence. While the sample size is small, Phoenix’s games with Griner have been among their slower paced contests, a sign that the squad is prepared to adapt to amplify their best player’s strengths. Once Griner gets even more court time with her new teammates, expect her impact only to increase.

DT’s still got (enough) it

Although widely-considered one of women’s basketball’s GOATs, Diana Taurasi did not make Swish Appeal’s WNBA Hoopers Hierarchy. In fact, she did not receive a single vote. Is DT more DisrespecTed than the Connecticut Sun?

Taurasi’s season captures the conundrum presented by an aging all-time great. The highs can still be quite high, but they come less often, sprinkled amongst inconsistent, inefficient nights. For instance, Taurasi scored a season-high 31 points, propelled by a 7-for-9 performance from behind the arc, in Phoenix’s June 2 win over the Los Angeles Sparks. Two nights later, she scored just seven points in a loss to the Seattle Storm, going 3-for-12 from the field with no luck from 3.

In short, it’s hard to know what to expect from the now 42-year-old Taurasi, which not only makes evaluating such a player difficult, but also, and more importantly, makes building game plans around her a challenge. Fortunately for Phoenix, the threat of her scoring remains strong enough that opposing defenses still must closely account for her. So even if she provides little impact beyond her up-and-down scoring output, as Natasha Cloud now commands the facilitation role that Taurasi occupied for past Phoenix squads, the prospect of a vintage DT outburst keeps defenses honest and opens up opportunities for other members of the Mercury. Like Kahleah Copper…

Kah keeps cooking

For as important as Griner’s return has been to Phoenix’s two-straight victories, the wins would not have come if not for Copper. After a scorching start to the season, Copper had cooled during the Mercury’s slide. But’s she heating back up. Against the Storm, Copper not only scored 34 points, her third game of more than 30 points this season, but she also drilled the game-winning 3-pointer with under a second remaining.

In the overtime victory over the Wings, Copper logged 44 minutes and lead the team with 29 points. In both games, she had her 3-ball working, dropping five triples on Seattle and four on Dallas. For the season, she’s making nearly 40 percent of her 3s on a career-high 7.4 attempts per game. She’s also continued to get to the line for a career-best 5.8 free throws per game. Her 24 points per game are also a career high, as well as the third-best mark in the league.

Even though she is exceeding her past marks, Copper’s output does not feel unsustainable. Although she is a streaky player, no one can cool her off when she’s running hot. And as she establishes more chemistry with her still-new teammates, and Griner in particular, it’s easy to envision Copper continuing to cook.

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