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Mercury 90, Lynx 81: Griner Shines in First Game Back vs Minnesota

Griner scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds to pair with Diana Taurasi’s game-highs of 23 points and 10 assists and send the Lynx to 0-3.

Minnesota Lynx v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

It was a special night in the desert for the Minnesota Lynx as they took on the Phoenix Mercury for the first time since Mercury star Brittney Griner was released from her wrongful detainment in Russia on December 8.

Griner scored an efficient 19 points on 7/9 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots against a Lynx team that struggled to combat the 6-foot-9 All-Star center. But the focus postgame was simply on how great it was for the Lynx to see a beloved person and fierce competitor back home once again.

“It seems strange to say with someone as great as BG that you would be happy to go against her. I can tell you that, just so many moments last season throughout the league, how heavy things were without her and what was weighing on everyone’s minds,” Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve — who has coached Griner extensively with USA Basketball — told Canis Hoopus postgame. “To be here, at the Footprint Center and watch her walk out to take the floor to warm up, it was quite a moment. I know that she’s been back for awhile but that’s our first time seeing her. ​​It was nice. Obviously she’s still a really great player.”

“It was great. I was so excited to see her just come out and she was smiling and she was talking to Coach Reeve, first. I was kind of waiting my turn and I jumped on her. Everybody knows what has happened, and I’m just happy to see her smiling this year, healthy this year, back playing the game that she loves. It was an exciting feeling, a little bit emotional, because we all were waiting for her to come back,” Powers told Canis. “So just happy to see her out there. Like, I remember she was shooting her free throw and I didn’t get mad she made it. I was just like, ‘Man, this is a good freaking moment right here.’ I was taking it all in.”

Beyond their difficulties guarding Griner inside, Minnesota allowed 11 3-pointers on 17 attempts (64.7%) in the first half alone, matching the total number Phoenix made in their first two games combined. Even though the Mercury cooled to shoot 2/11 from 3 (18.1%) in the second half, those two makes came in crucial moments to help fend off a Lynx comeback and ultimately defeat Minnesota 90-81.

Let’s get into the takeaways.

Minnesota Lynx v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

A Mercury 3-Point Barrage Too Much to Overcome

Phoenix came out of the gates firing, determined to spread out a Minnesota defense that was packing the lane to prevent Diana Taurasi, old friend Moriah Jefferson and Griner from doing damage in the paint. The Mercury got up six 3-pointers in the first quarter, connecting on five of them, while taking only five 2s; that made imbalance made up for their carelessness with the ball, as they turned it over seven times in the opening 10 minutes.

But Taurasi is feeling it early, and Sophie Cunningham, Sug Sutton, Michaela Onyenwere and Jefferson all see their first attempt go down, things can spiral quickly. That crew connected on their first three looks from deep in the second quarter to blow the game wide open before halftime.

Minnesota’s struggles certainly played a hand in that. The Lynx shot just 1/10 from deep in the first half and couldn’t consistently connect from the mid-range, either. Those shooting woes fed a Mercury transition offense that made them pay for not getting back and ending up crossmatched as a result.

“It was not our intention to give up 17 [3-point attempts] in the first half. I thought Phoenix had a hungry way about them that we just weren’t ready, for whatever reason. I didn’t think we started competing until the second half. Things got a little bit harder. I thought we were a little more disruptive,” Reeve told Canis, later crediting Tiffany Mitchell for her defensive intensity to open the second half. “But we couldn’t get shots to fall. I mean, they shot 34% in the second half, I believe and we were at 37.”

Minnesota outscored Phoenix at the free throw line (22-21), in bench production (29-16), on second chances (14-7), in the paint (32-24), and in points off turnovers (21-14), but lost the 3-point battle 39-9.

“So yeah, three ball for them was certainly a separator,” Reeve added. “We were lucky to have a chance to be in the game.”

Thursday was the latest data point in a building trend for the Lynx: an inability to stick to the game plan and execute for the whole game.

“I think in the second half we played a little bit better. But overall, the first half we did not perform the way we needed to perform, and the results show that,” rookie Diamond Miller told Canis Hoopus at the podium. “These teams are too good to not play 40 minutes, so we have to play 40 minutes to the best of our abilities. And I don’t think we did that tonight. We came out a little flat.”

“I think it was almost as if they were extremely comfortable out there when we were playing defense. I think they had 11 threes in the first half and you just can’t have that. You have to run them off the line or do something. And for us, I think our defense was where we needed to compete more, especially in the first half, because they were just so comfortable,” Powers added. “By then they had like a 17-point, 18-point lead going into halftime and we cut it down within 10, but we never could get over the hump. I think if we were able to play more aggressive on defense running off the line, we would have had a better chance of winning the game.”

Miller offered some much-needed perspective as a young team builds an identity and learns more about each other:

“These last three games I feel like we haven’t played a 40-minute, complete game. And those are the reasons why I think we have taken some of these L’s. But luckily it’s early in the season and we still have a lot of time to flip it around,” she said postgame.

“That’s the exciting part about basketball. We get multiple opportunities within days. And we’re gonna continue to grow. Right now, we’re not where we need to be, and we know that, but in two weeks, we are going to be a different team because we’re having all these growing pains early. So I think this is not what we obviously want, but maybe this is what we need for our future to be more successful.”

Minnesota Lynx v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Another Needed Powers(urge)

Powers set a strong tone in the first half offensively, seeing a shot go down early in the opening frame before clocking in for some serious work in the second quarter. She quickly gave the Mercury four points out of the gates and then turned in a pair of big jumpers to keep the Lynx within striking distance while Phoenix went bananas from deep.

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I feel extremely comfortable everywhere on the floor right now. I’m just trying to get to my spots and pass when I need, create for my teammates. Just trying to do whatever it takes to win,” said Powers, who shot 7/12 (58.3%) on her patented pull-up mid-range jumpers.

Reeve and Co. did an excellent job running her off pin-downs, curls and dribble hand-offs so she could receive the ball with momentum going towards the basket. Powers looked by far the most comfortable she has this season, which is going to be important production to bottle up and replicate if they want to fully optimize their spread attack in the half-court.

“Certainly she was awfully helpful to us. I think she’s feeling her shot right now, which is great. And it was great to see her continue to find success,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus about her dynamic guard’s team-high 20-point scoring night.

The best part about Powers game was that she committed just one live ball turnover despite a whopping 32.1% usage rate — a telling sign that she made quick decisions and executed them with efficiency. Minnesota will desperately need AP to continue her strong offensive play, especially during the absence of Kayla McBride, who was away from the team on personal leave to attend her sister’s wedding.

Minnesota Lynx v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Collier’s Up-and-Down Scoring Continues

The two-time All-Star made the all-around play impact (seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block) that is at the heart of what makes her an elite player, but is still adjusting to the role of lead scorer. Collier scored eight points on 3/9 shooting, but two of those baskets came late in the game when the outcome was essentially decided.

“I thought that there was a crowd on her obviously, she’s our team’s best player, so she gets a lot of attention. But if I could be honest, I just don’t think Phee imposed her will on the game in a way that maybe we saw in the last game that we played,” Reeve said of her star’s performance, pointing out there are ways the coaching staff can help her achieve that.

“I thought we had some chances for Phee to get a little more aggressive and just demand the ball, be strong with it, try to get three-point plays. So we just got to find ways to make sure that single digits is not where Collier ends up and [she gets] more shot variety. But yeah, give Phoenix credit.”

Collier has made her scoring mark in the league as a driver and post-up threat, but didn’t get to the rim off the bounce or post against smaller defenders for most of the game. The Lynx went back to it in the fourth:

This is something I’d like to see more of, especially if Collier is out there with Shepard. Here, Griner is sagging off Shepard into the middle of the paint, so Phee turns away towards the baseline before draining a smooth jumper over the smaller Cunningham. Collier will continue developing her perimeter scoring and become more consistent as the season progresses. But the team should still look to maintain a better mix of pushing Collier out of her comfort zone and getting her the ball in spots she’s proven to be lethal from.

Fans should be patient. Collier is incredibly talented in the midst of a major transition period in her game as she works off the rust from missing an entire season. If she can give herself grace while enduring some growing pains, everyone can — and should.

Next Up

The Lynx continue their road trip with a Sunday night Sin City Showdown with the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces. Fans can catch the 8 PM tip on Bally Sports North and CBS Sports Network.

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