PHOENIX — Diana Taurasi snagged the inbounds pass and quickly launched a full-court heave to Phoenix Mercury teammate Brittney Griner, who had snuck behind all five New York Liberty players.
Before they could recover, Griner caught it in the lane, turned, took two steps and jumped off both feet for a one-handed dunk. In the moment, the 6-foot-9 center didn’t know where on the court she was. Fortunately, when Griner turned, she was within a jump of the rim.
“It just worked perfectly,” Griner told ESPN. “I would have been on ‘Shaqtin’ a Fool’ if the rim wasn’t that close.”
Looking back, Griner said she knew right away she was throwing down that dunk against New York on Aug. 25, in part because of the situation — a fast break and wide-open court ahead of her — and in part because of a newfound approach toward dunking: More is better. That was the result of turning 30 last October.
The milestone birthday hit Griner hard. She awoke the next morning realizing that recovering from a night out wasn’t as easy as it used to be. It didn’t just take a day to feel better. It took two or three.
Entering a new decade also gave Griner a new perspective on her basketball mortality.
“Before I get to the point where I can’t dunk anymore or it hurts,” Griner said, “I was like, let me try to rack up some right now.”
She did just that.
The 6-foot-9 Griner had a career-high five dunks in the regular season to add to her WNBA record. Heading into Thursday’s 2021 WNBA playoff game against New York (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Griner has 23 career dunks — 17 in the regular season, five in All-Star Games and one in the playoffs. The rest of the WNBA has accounted for just three regular-season dunks in the league’s 25 seasons.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Griner said. “I mean, I own, basically, all the dunks in the W.”
And when Griner dunks, people notice. They tend to be shown on TV, which leads to more people talking about Mercury, the WNBA and the women’s game.
“I think it’s great,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “I think it gets the crowd into it. It gets people talking about it, talking about women that actually can dunk and not vice versa, and, yeah, it’s just something that she’s very comfortable doing, and she’s in great shape.
“So, I think that helps her, as well, to get up there and take those opportunities when they’re presented to her.”
Brittney Griner throws down her 13th in-game dunk.
DUNKS USED TO BE AN AFTERTHOUGHT for Griner, who turned in an MVP-caliber season, averaging a career-high 9.5 rebounds as well as 20.5 points, 2.7 assists and 1.9 blocks, while leading Phoenix to the No. 5 seed in the WNBA playoffs. This season, dunks became top-of-mind, and she started thinking about the future of the dunk in the WNBA.
Griner sees videos of young women dunking on Instagram; she knows the WNBA’s next generations can put one down. The question is, will they? When Griner hears how many slams she has had, she immediately thinks about who’s going to be the WNBA’s next great dunker. A lot of players can dunk. They just don’t do it in games.
“It’s hard to dunk in the WNBA,” said Griner, who threw down in back-to-back games this month for the first time in her career. “I feel like it’s easier in the NBA. I mean, I’m no fool, the mechanics of our bodies are different. They are way bigger and can jump higher. Not saying that women can’t jump higher or anything like that …
“And in the WNBA, no one wants to get dunked on. So, like, they’re not just going to give it to you, so you really have to commit to do it in the game.”
Griner tends to get fouled before she has an opportunity to throw one down. But when she does, she said the other teams hate it.
Would Griner like to posterize someone? Yes, absolutely. Will someone give her that opportunity? Probably not. Watching a player retreat, however, has become a better feeling for Griner than the idea of dunking over someone.
“When you make your mind up, a player can see that. Like, ‘Oh, she’s going to dunk,’ so they get the hell out of the way,” Griner said.
“It’s one thing to try to stop somebody from dunking or go to contest me. If somebody just runs out the way or just moves out the way, I feel like that’s more special than actually dunking on somebody.”
It’s also safer.
In the past, one of Griner’s biggest fears about dunking was coming down on another player’s foot and rolling her ankle. She used to be “super aware” of where the other players were around her, which oftentimes made up Griner’s mind for her.
“I think this year I just didn’t care,” Griner said. “That’s why I’ve been doing it more. That’s why I’ve been going more with it. I haven’t been caring where people are.”
Brittney Griner slams another dunk on Thursday night and pulls out the airplane celebration.
Griner doesn’t need much room to dunk. She can go straight up. If she can get off two feet, she’s probably going to throw down a two-handed dunk. She enjoys those more than one-handed dunks because there’s more force and ferociousness to them. And, well, “it looks cooler.”
Dunking off one foot, often leading to a one-handed jam, is Griner’s typical mode to the rim.
“It’s spur-of-the-moment or it’s quick or I don’t have enough time to like, gather myself for a two-hand smash,” Griner explained.
She usually has a split-second to decide whether or not to dunk. When she starts thinking about it, she gets herself in trouble. If she goes up thinking she’s going to dunk but then changes her mind to a layup, Griner tends to miss the gimme. The same thing happens when she tries to go from layup to dunk. That has taught her to commit to one: If it’s a layup, it’s a layup; if it’s a dunk, it’s a dunk.
The easiest dunks are either in transition, on a fast break or when the lane opens up for her — like the one against the Liberty.
Dunking in traffic, however, takes more of a concerted effort.
“You got to be real committed,” Griner said, “because not only do you have to get yourself up and dunk it, you got to go through somebody’s force coming at you, so like you really have to be aware of what you’re about to do.
“It’s more than just going up.”
Whenever she throws one down, it’s instant hype: for her, her teammates, the crowd.
“You can’t tell me nothing for the next five or six plays,” Griner said with a smile. “I’m, like, super-hype.”
Griner still enjoys watching her teammates’ faces after a dunk and watching the bench go crazy. Those reactions, Griner said, push her to dunk as much as possible. When she lays it up, her teammates often ask why she didn’t throw it down.
Her usual response: “I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
Diana Taurasi throws a full-court pass to Brittney Griner, who finishes the play with a one-handed dunk for the Mercury.
GRINER HAS BEEN DUNKING since ninth grade, when the then 6-footer threw down a volleyball at the urging of a custodian who worked on her school’s HVAC. He was a good volleyball player so he’d help out with practice. After she dunked that, a basketball was the next step. Griner began practicing with the boys’ ninth-grade team at Nimitz High School in Aldine, Texas. The team dunked often, and it inspired her to get higher so there weren’t any “baby dunks.”
In high school, she dunked for the first time as a junior and was only getting started. Griner had 52 dunks in 32 games as a senior, including nine in one game.
Her dunking continued in college. As a freshman at Baylor, where she reached 6-foot-7, she became the seventh woman to dunk in a regular-season game. By the time she graduated, which included a national championship during a perfect, 40-0 season in 2012, she had set an NCAA national record with 18 dunks.
Griner was the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, and when she arrived in the WNBA, dunking in a game was almost expected. She felt like she had to dunk in her Mercury debut.
“I felt like everybody was gonna be let down if I didn’t get my first WNBA dunk,” she said. “I felt like everybody would have been let down with me as a player. Maybe my hype wouldn’t have been as big, so I felt the pressure from everybody else to get a dunk in that game.”
It happened — twice. All these years later, when Griner is reminded of that game, she always points out the same thing: Phoenix lost.
Still, getting those dunks out of the way helped ease the load on Griner in the early days of her rookie season, said former Mercury coach Corey Gaines, now an assistant for the Washington Wizards.
“I think it formed a way for her to work on other parts of her game, because she’s gotten so much better,” he said. “You can say it took the pressure off of her. It’s done. It’s over with. Now, you can start working on the real stuff.”
Griner went on to become the WNBA’s all-time leader in career blocks and is also a two-time scoring champion. Her impact on the game was recently recognized when Griner was named to ESPN’s ranking of the 25 greatest players in WNBA history.
While she’s of the most dominant centers in the WNBA, Griner’s new mindset and new approach throughout 2021 has only further established her as the WNBA’s Queen of Dunks.
“I’m just thinking about it a hell of a lot more and not caring,” Griner said. “Like, I’m going to attempt it. If I get hung, I get hung. Thankfully, I haven’t got hung yet, but if I miss it, I miss it — at least it’s a dunk attempt.”
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