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Mercury’s Griner could be in for big game against shorthanded Sparks

The Los Angeles Sparks, down several players in their rotation, take on the Phoenix Mercury, who have dropped three straight, in the first of two consecutive games between the teams.

New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury
Brittney Griner
Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Mercury (5-6) take to the road to face the Los Angeles Sparks (4-5) on Wednesday in the first meeting of the 2021 WNBA season between the two teams. It will be the first of two consecutive games between the Mercury and Sparks; the next will be on Friday and will also be played in Los Angeles.

The Sparks have been struggling with injuries as of late, having lost Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike and rookie Jasmine Walker to knee injuries. While each player has a different timetable — Nneka Ogwumike is in the middle of a 4-6 week absence while Chiney Ogwumike is considered week-to-week — their respective injuries have gutted the Sparks’ depth, forcing head coach Derek Fisher to play smaller lineups built around Amanda Zahui B. and Nia Coffey in the frontcourt.

New York Liberty v Phoenix Mercury
Skylar Diggins-Smith currently ranks sixth in the WNBA in scoring at 19.4 points per game.
Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

This strategy may be problematic against the Mercury, who are getting a bounce-back season from Brittney Griner (19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game). The tandem of Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith has kept Phoenix’s ship afloat in Diana Taurasi’s absence (she is out with a sternum fracture), while Brianna Turner continues to impress on the defensive end of the floor.

Look for the Sparks to go to Zahui B. early and often. She’s attempted 34 threes in seven games, and Fisher will likely give her the green light to fire away in hopes that it will pull Griner and Turner out of the paint and loosen up the Mercury’s half-court defense. If Zahui B. can’t get going, Los Angeles may struggle to score; while the Sparks are one of the WNBA’s best teams at turning defense into offense, they’re not nearly as adept at shooting the basketball, posting just a 44.4 percent effective field goal percentage (11th in the WNBA) thus far.

Phoenix, meanwhile, has lost three consecutive games, though two of them have been by single digits. Though the Sparks shouldn’t be taken for granted, the Mercury have to like their individual matchups here; they’ll undoubtedly try to establish Griner in the post early, and with few active Sparks realistically able to hang with her, she should be in for a big night.


Game information

Phoenix Mercury (5-6) vs. Los Angeles Sparks (4-5)

When: Wednesday, June 16 at 10:30 p.m. ET

Where: Los Angeles Convention Center, Los Angeles, CA

How to watch: Amazon Prime

Mercury injury report: Bria Hartley (out; knee), Diana Taurasi (out; sternum)

Sparks injury report: Te’a Cooper (out; league suspension), Nneka Ogwumike (out; knee), Chiney Ogwumike (out; knee), Jasmine Walker (out for season; knee)

Keys to the matchup: Pace of play will be crucial in this game. The Sparks want to speed things up; they’re currently leading the WNBA in opponents’ turnover rate (25.1 percent) and you can bet they’ll try to make things uncomfortable for the Mercury before Griner and Diggins-Smith can grind them down in the halfcourt. Otherwise, there will be no stopping Phoenix in the paint; few teams have been able to successfully defend Griner this season, and with the Sparks’ lack of depth in the frontcourt, they’ll be at a tremendous disadvantage if she’s allowed to set up shop and go to work.