SEATTLE — Brittney Griner did not dunk. Not during the actual game, at least. Now that we’ve gotten that distraction out of the way, perhaps we can get to some real analysis about a game that remains too diverse and beautiful to be obsessed with a single form of athleticism.
Yes, it’s cool to see a female dunk with the ease that Griner does, and I’m very much a believer that she has the talent to be a transformative women’s basketball player. But there was so much more to the Storm’s home opener against Griner and the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday.
Let’s start with the earsplitting sound of 9,686 fans at KeyArena getting rowdy over the most impressive thing they witnessed.
The revelation that the Storm, sans Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson for the entire season, refuse to be dismissed.
The Storm proved that during a 75-72 victory over the star-laden Mercury. Phoenix may have Diana Taurasi, the WNBA’s best player for my tastes, to go with Griner and Candice Dupree. But this Storm squad of role players who have contributed to great teams provided the league’s potential new “it” team with a lesson on character, grit and pride.
It was exactly the kind of performance this franchise needed in its home opener. The downside of a year without Bird and Jackson is obvious and concerning, and the team’s season-opening 102-69 loss at Los Angeles last week did nothing to alleviate fear that this could be a long and fruitless summer for the Storm. While the challenge remains immense, this game offered hope that there will be plenty of entertainment amid the struggles.
“Tonight, what you saw was our character,” guard Tanisha Wright said.
You saw their fight, too. Almost literally.
This game hit its stride in the third quarter after Wright was whistled for a foul on Phoenix forward DeWanna Bonner. It was a clean but physical play, but Bonner complained. A few seconds later, Griner retaliated by giving Wright an extra shove after setting a screen. Griner was called for a flagrant foul.
The Storm wouldn’t admit to it afterward, but Griner’s foul stirred its competitiveness. It sparked a 10-0 run as the Storm took its first lead of the game. All of a sudden, forward Camille Little was attacking the basket and finishing with her left hand as Griner swatted at the ball. Wright made a pullup jumper. Point guard Temeka Johnson hit a floater.
The Storm players had too much pride to let Griner come into KeyArena and manhandle them. The veterans on this team, particularly Tina Thompson, Little and Wright, weren’t going to stand for it.
“Even if no one believes in us, we believe in ourselves,” said Little, who had 13 points and five rebounds.
Wright led the Storm with 20 points, five rebounds and three assists. Second-year guard Shekinna Stricklen had 11 points. Thompson, who announced Friday that he would retire after the season, contributed seven points and six rebounds, but her impact was so much greater.
If the Storm can play this way more often, it will be a beloved team. Everyone understands the Storm doesn’t have any superstars in their prime this season. Everyone understands that could make for an ugly record. But blue-collar teams that give maximum effort are always greeted warmly.
“They’re gritty,” Storm coach Brian Agler said, referring to the identity that Thompson, Little and Wright are helping this team forge. “They’re competitive. They don’t back down. Hopefully, that’s the personality this team will have.”
Griner was solid in her first WNBA road game. She scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds. She made six of her first seven shots, but in the second half, the Storm limited her to 2-of-8 shooting. In addition to her flagrant foul, she also was called for a technical after slamming the basketball on the media table in frustration.
“That’s a mistake,” Griner said. “Shouldn’t have done it.”
For all the deserved hype over Griner, the Mercury is now 0-2 this season. Phoenix will figure it out eventually — and it will be scary when it does — but right now, the Mercury looks ordinary. They’re transitioning from being a perimeter-oriented team built around Taurasi to being a team with two great post players (Griner, Dupree) and a dynamic shooting guard.
The Mercury’s early struggles also serve as another important reminder: The depth of talent in the WNBA is better than the credit it receives. It’s difficult to come out of college and dominate this league. Griner is already a star, but she’s learning lessons. Hard ones.
She’s learning that there are prideful veterans throughout this league, and they’re ready to show the Next Big Thing that she will have to earn everything.
The Storm has several of those veterans. So the rivalry with the Mercury is still intact. And when you come to KeyArena, the main attraction is still the home team.