Sky improve to 2-0 with win over Mercury in Brittney Griner’s return to Phoenix

Griner finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in her first game back on her homecourt.

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The Mercury’s Brittney Griner looks to pass during Sunday’s game.

The Mercury’s Brittney Griner looks to pass during Sunday’s game.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

PHOENIX — Nothing about the marquee matchup between the Sky and Mercury was typical.

After all, it wasn’t just a game — it was a celebration. The occasion was Brittney Griner’s return to the Footprint Center after missing the 2022 season while being wrongfully detained in Russia.

If there was one moment that genuinely signaled Griner’s return to the WNBA, it was one she provided herself. With the Mercury trailing by eight in the third quarter, she launched a three-pointer from the top of the key that sailed smoothly through the net. As Griner ran down the court, she looked up into the stands, pounded her chest and yelled: “I’m back.”

She had 27 points and 10 rebounds and scored the game’s first field goal Sunday in the Mercury’s 75-69 loss to the Sky.

“It’s a balancing act,” Griner said of juggling her emotions and her play. “With any job that you have, from the biggest to the smallest, whatever you have going on when you get to work, you have to work. My team depends on me, and the fans want to see a good product. It’s my job to deliver that.”

The two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2014 WNBA champion has acknowledged it will take time before she can return to the player she expects to be. But after her opening weekend, she appears well on her way.

Griner’s four blocks moved her past Sylvia Fowles and into third place on the league’s all-time list. Kahleah Copper found herself on the receiving end of one.

“I admire her so much,” Copper said. “I definitely got my welcome back when I thought I was going to the rim, and she was like, ‘No, it ain’t happening.’ ”

Last season, the WNBA’s collective focus was on helping secure Griner’s safe return. This season will be all about celebrating her. For her opponents, there’s no better way to do that than by showing up ready to play.

The Sky’s new forward, Elizabeth Williams, welcomed Griner’s formidable presence in the post. She has spent her entire WNBA career matched up against Griner and said last season didn’t feel right without her.

“You have to acknowledge both,” Williams said. “Recognize the importance of today and how important [Griner] is to us as a sisterhood and to the league and what it represents. But, at the same time, we respect the game and come in with the same mentality.”

Williams grabbed eight rebounds to go with her 10 points and two steals. Copper led the Sky (2-0) with 15 points, and Dana Evans added 13. Diana Taurasi had 16 points for Phoenix (0-2). The Sky outrebounded the Mercury 39-29.

When Griner took questions for the first time since being released at a news conference in April, she was vocal about her plans to be an advocate for wrongfully detained Americans abroad, and that advocacy was on full display.

In partnership with Bring Our Families Home, the Mercury had PSAs throughout the game to help bring awareness about wrongfully detained Americans abroad. The partnership also will provide resources to the families of those who are wrongfully detained and letter-writing stations at all of the Mercury’s home games.

Roger Carstens, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs, took questions from the media alongside Griner after the game. He commended Griner’s advocacy, crediting work like hers for directly having an impact on the return of wrongfully detained Americans abroad.

“This is how we increase awareness,” Carstens said. “The goal is that one day when an American is taken overseas, the nation mobilizes to bring those people home.”

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