There was all the glitz, all the glamor, and all the appeal of a home opener that a team could ever possibly ask for. Every ideal circumstance on the checklist was being marked off of the list.
Local celebrities were in the house in Larry Fitzgerald as well as former Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jason Richardson where there to support the home team. This was a Nationally televised game on a holiday where everyone had the opportunity to be home and watch with an electric crowd loudly supporting their team. A returning star in Diana Taurasi and the next star in Brittney Griner in uniform ready to perform against her rival peer Elena Delle Donne also illuminated the atmosphere. Everything was lined for not only a spectacle, but for a successful season debut to boot.
The only thing not checked off was a victory. That escaped them, tonight.
Early on the Mercury struggled to score with only nine first quarter points, but it was the lack of a defensive presence in the second that sealed the teams' eventual fate. In that quarter the Sky scored 39 points to balloon their lead to 24 points at the half. Most of those points came with Griner on the bench with three fouls after head coach Corey Gaines rolled the dice on his new star not getting into further foul trouble. She did, which resulted in the second quarter outburst.
The battle between the rookies became more of a strategy session between the coaches as Griner was not able to get into a rhythm while Delle Donne methodically picked apart the defense with her 22 points.
Griner did a good job in the second half when the game was out of hand. She was able to get the ball on the block to post, turn-and-face, and score 15 points to go with her 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in the second half. Her performance in the second half was more of an indication of the player Griner can be on the defensive end changing shots even when not in a position to block them.
This was the type of game that the league as a whole needed even though the "Next Big Thing" did not come out on top.
Eyes were on the league and Griner delivered with two emphatic dunks late in the game giving her the leagues fourth and fifth dunks ever. Those plays will be on Sports Center tonight and all week as they were historic dunks. Already, just 27:25 into her career Griner has the most dunks individually in the leagues history and those were just the generic sprinkles on top of the icing, on top of the cake.
Delle Donne was impressive in her own right with the way she was able to score in a multitude of ways, which was highlighted by a three-point bomb to end the first half, sealing the Mercury's fate.
The problems for the Mercury are not in defending Delle Donne, but rather regaining that offensive chemistry that Coach Gaines had a few short years ago. Balancing the offense will help the defensive woes the team displayed in this singular game. Most of the Sky's offense came from the Mercury missing shots and turning the ball over. When the shots are falling the defense is easier execute with Griner in the middle and the length presented by DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree.
Overall the play in the second half had more positives than negatives. In those two quarters the Mercury outscored the Sky 48-46 with Taurasi and Griner combining for 28 points shooting 62.5% from the field.
Now the pressure is off. All of the "will the Mercury go undefeated" questions are off the table and they can go out as a team to try and be the best team they can be. That is the most important lesson from tonight's game. The Mercury no longer have sole pressure on themselves, Griner can be dominant, and this team has more positives than negatives coming out of a 22 point loss.