Tuesday night almost became the night Phoenix Mercury fans have been waiting for.
Yes, BG is free! And, Diana Taurasi is medically cleared to play! Unfortunately, DT will be serving her one-game suspension for her involvement in the incident that began with Griner and the Dallas Wings’ Kristine Anigwe.
Nonetheless, Griner’s return comes just in time for the Mercury, as they will be traveling to Sin City to take on the Las Vegas Aces. While she certainly will assume some of the scoring responsibilities from DeWanna Bonner, Griner’s services most will be needed on the other end of the floor. She will be tasked with stymying Liz Cambage, whose play has ascended since she shared her struggles with anxiety and depression.
In previous matchups, Griner has rather successfully stalled Cambage. Remarkably, the Mercury and Aces have not played each other since late May, when Cambage, then returning from her sore achilles, only played 13 minutes. Last season, when Cambage was with Dallas, she performed below her season averages in all three contests against the Mercury. It should be noted Cambage likewise has forced Griner into offensive inefficiencies, with Griner meeting her usual output in only one of the three games.
When speaking about her suspension, Griner noted she appreciates the physical, yet respectful, challenge that comes with facing Cambage, telling the Arizona Republic:
“Me and Liz (Cambage) play physical against each other. But it never escalates. Like we don’t throw cheap shots at each other.”
A’ja Wilson, of course, will also be involved in this inside battle. During the May matchup, Wilson performed poorly, shooting only 21% from the field. Her performance on Sunday suggests her time on the sideline provided a valuable observational opportunity, allowing her to elevate her offensive play. More high-low actions with Cambage could prove effective in getting past Griner’s paint protection.
Before this battle of the bigs, the Atlanta Dream will welcome the Chicago Sky. The Sky should, literally, find this game against the Dream welcoming. In their past four games, they traveled to Las Vegas and Los Angeles before then facing both of those teams in Chicago. While the Sky tallied an impressive 2-2 record during this stretch, the matchup with the Dream should be much more comfortable, as Atlanta lacks the kind of inside superstar talents that can trouble Chicago. Having remained competitive through the first three quarters of their previous few games, Atlanta will be searching for any sort of fourth-quarter scoring consistency as the try to avoid losing their 12th straight.
The New York Liberty will also be seeking to avoid an extended losing streak when they meet the Indiana Fever. Head coach Katie Smith, whose seat likely has begun to feel a bit hot, will again try to find someone to support Tina Charles. In August, the veteran All-Star has assumed a greater scoring load and increased her rebounding percentage. Charles certainly will present a challenge for Teaira McCowan. As expected, the Fever rookie has improved over the course of the season. In particular, her 58.3% field goal percentage since the All-Star break suggests the offensive game is slowing down for her.
Another rookie also will be in the center of the evening’s action. Napheesa Collier is one of many who prove how much the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks have changed in the past year. Facing Candace Parker for the first time, the Rookie of the Year candidate must play with the precociousness she has demonstrated throughout the season. Yet, the matchup between Odyssey Sims and Chelsea Gray may be most enticing. These squads have not played each other since early June, when 21 points from Gray spoiled Lindsay Whalen’s retirement ceremony. Having performed poorly in this first matchup against her former team, look for Sims to try to light it up in her return to LA.
Atlanta Dream (5-21) vs. Chicago Sky (15-11)
When: Tuesday, August 20, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: State Farm Arena, Atlanta, GA
How to watch: The U Too, Twitter
Keys to the matchup: In the previous matchup between these two teams, Stefanie Dolson used her stretch ability to punish the Dream. Attempting five threes, Dolson sank four on her way to an über-efficient 16 points. Her efforts pulled shot blockers Elizabeth Williams and Jessica Breland out of the paint, which, in turn, allowed other members of the Sky to more easily find their way to the hoop. While the Sky scored 30 points in the paint (a mark below their season average of 33) during their first game against Dream (a nearly last-second, one-point victory), their 38 points in the paint in the second contest helped claim a 12-point win.
Indiana Fever (9-17) vs. New York Liberty (8-18)
When: Tuesday, August 20, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
How to watch: WNDY, NBA TV, NBA TV Canada
Keys to the matchup: The Liberty and Fever have not faced each other since May 24 and June 1, a moment when early-season hopes abounded — especially for Indiana, as they claimed a pair of victories. Much of this was due to Erica Wheeler, who previewed the playmaking improvement she has sustained throughout the season. She tallied the best plus/minus in each of these games. As the Liberty’s point guard rotation has become less settled since then, look for Wheeler to again give the Fever the advantage.
Las Vegas Aces (18-9) vs. Phoenix Mercury (13-13)
When: Tuesday, August 20, at 10 p.m. ET
Where: Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas, NV
How to watch: MYLVTV, Twitter
Keys to the matchup: If starting duos of Cambage-Wilson and Griner-Bonner play to a draw, super sixth woman Dearica Hamby can give the Aces an edge. Even with Griner’s return, the Mercury remain thin. Hamby’s combination of energy and savvy could trouble rookie Brianna Turner and the retiring Camille Little. As expected, Hamby’s minutes dropped on Sunday due to Wilson’s return. However, her usage also sunk below her season average. Even as he reduces her minutes, head coach Bill Laimbeer still should look to get Hamby touches, relying on her to extend leads against opponent’s reserve units.
Los Angeles Sparks (15-10) vs. Minnesota Lynx (13-14)
When: Tuesday, August 20, at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
How to watch: Spectrum Sportsnet, NBA TV, NBA TV Canada
Keys to the matchup: Even as the rivalry between these two teams has changed and chilled, similarities between the teams remain. Minnesota and Los Angeles are ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in defensive rating. Both teams also have scored more than 11% of the points off the fast break, while also scoring more than 20% off turnovers. Whichever squad best can convert defense to offense should be situated to succeed. In particular, can Nneka Ogwumike, ranked fourth in steals per game, or Napheesa Collier, fifth in steals per game, kickstart her team’s offense from the defensive end?