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Brittney Griner’s mid-Wubble reset is paying huge dividends for Phoenix Mercury

(Rich von Biberstein/Getty Images)

When Brittney Griner entered the league in 2013, the former-Baylor star quickly delivered on the high expectations that greeted her by bringing a WNBA championship to Phoenix in her second season. Averaging 15.6 points, 8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game that year, Griner led the team with 6.8 win shares and was everything Diana Taurasi needed in a running mate.

Most assumed more league titles were sure to follow. But six chances have now come and gone without another Mercury appearance in the Finals.

Taurasi took a full WNBA season off (2015) and has been in and out with injuries, while Griner has been steadily doing her part in the paint. She’s been a WNBA All-Star every single year they’ve held a game; averaging 20-plus points in four of the last five years, she’s also led the Mercury in win shares in four of her eight seasons in Phoenix.

While her rebounding and defensive numbers have stayed consistent, they’ve dipped in recent years after she won back-to-back WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2014 and 2015. During those years, she set the record for most blocks in a season (2014) and average blocks per game (2015) — records which still stand today.

Given her skill, athleticism and game-changing height (Griner is listed at 6-foot-9), fans have come to expect Griner to dominate in the paint, night in and night out, season after season. Anytime she doesn’t take over a game, there’s a nagging suspicion that some next-level greatness has been left untapped.

Griner and Team USA celebrate winning Olympic gold in Tokyo. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

During the WNBA’s 2020 “Wubble” season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Griner unexpectedly left the WNBA bubble “for personal reasons” after just 13 of the Mercury’s 22 regular-season games. She eventually spoke about her departure several months later while at a USA Basketball camp in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.

While maintaining a degree of privacy, she made it clear her decision was based on mental health, stating, “With everything I was dealing with, I needed to take that leave. It took a lot for me to make that decision.”

Months before Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, igniting a maelstrom of public debate, Griner quietly sparked her own conversation by departing to take care of herself.

“I definitely used counseling a lot when I left,” she later said. “It’s helped me out tremendously. I think more people should be open to talking about mental health issues and finding that centerpiece with themselves.”

In addition to counseling, Griner was able to spend time camping, off-roading and working on her Jeep back in Phoenix. Given the year-round grind that’s required of WNBA players who also play overseas, those weeks of personal time were a rare opportunity for Griner. And they seem to have paid off.

After returning to the court at the start of 2021 to play once again with her UMMC Ekaterinburg team in Russia, Griner won a third consecutive EuroLeague title and then the Olympic gold medal with Team USA in Tokyo. In Japan, she started all six games and averaged 22.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and nine blocks, all while shooting the highest field goal percentage of anyone on the team.

But the biggest indicator of a refreshed mindset may be Griner’s performance in the WNBA this season. She is currently second in the league in points per game (20.8) and second in field goal percentage. She is leading the league in blocks and averaging a career best 9.5 rebounds per game. And she’s leading the Mercury in win shares. (Not a small feat given the star power of running mates Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.)

And although WNBA fans aren’t in it for the slam dunks, the fact that Griner has dunked four times already this season, something she hasn’t done since 2014 and 2015, reveals just how fired up she’s feeling. One more and she’ll break her own record for most dunks in a single season.

 Back at USA Basketball camp early in the year, Griner elaborated on why it was important for her to be open about taking care of her mental health.

“We really don’t talk about our feelings. Just put it in a box and forget about it, push it to the back,” she said. “That’s something that hurts us as a society honestly and is something that’s going to change with more athletes speaking up about it.”

After the Olympic break, Griner and the Mercury went on a 10-game win streak before losing to the top-ranked Connecticut Sun last Saturday. Given that eight of those wins came against the bottom three teams in the league, their upcoming final two games of the season, against the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces, will be a much better test of the team’s playoff readiness.

As of now, they are one win behind the Storm for a top-four regular season finish and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

If they go on a run this WNBA postseason, it will largely be thanks to Griner’s willingness to look after herself last year in the 2020 bubble. She invested in herself by taking a break, and now the Mercury may be the ultimate benefactors.

Tune in: The Phoenix Mercury take on the Seattle Storm this Friday at 10 p.m. ET on NBATV.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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