Brittney Griner had not had, by any account, a particularly auspicious WNBA postseason debut. At various points in the Phoenix rookie's first playoff series, the uber-hyped No. 1 draft pick has been in foul trouble, too tentative offensively, and benched for a lack of rebounding.
But with 4.9 seconds left on the clock at Staples Center on Monday night, she suddenly became a hero again. Griner took an inbounds pass on a play designed for Diana Taurasi. But Taurasi was tied up and time was getting short, so Griner turned on the baseline 15 feet from the basket and shot the ball up and over Candace Parker, the WNBA's most valuable player. The shot dropped through the net for what turned out to be the game-winning basket in a thrilling 78-77 Phoenix win over Los Angeles in the deciding Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
"I really didn't think about it, I just turned and shot," Griner said. "Every player practices that. I have played it before in my head in the gym, but I wasn't nervous about it at all. I didn't think twice. Just like I practiced it, every time."
When Griner's ball went in, Parker bent over the waist, looking as if her back had just been broken. Or perhaps it was only her heart. Again.
The Sparks had one more chance to win the game, Parker taking the ball on the inbounds before getting pinned in the corner by two Phoenix defenders. She managed to dribble free enough to attempt an off-balance shot that bounced away -- and it was over. The game. The season. The now-laborious quest for a championship.
While Griner was mobbed by her celebrating teammates, Parker was left to absorb the sting of another one-point loss on her home floor. Last year it was Minnesota in the Western Conference finals; this year, Phoenix a round earlier.
"When the same thing keeps happening over and over again, you have to look in the mirror and figure out what's going on," Parker said grimly. "We put so much into this and to be sitting here again on this podium talking after a loss & I don't know."
Funny thing is, Griner really don't know, either.
There was no real indication that she would be the difference-maker in a see-saw game in which two nearly exhausted teams were battling for survival. Griner -- who was a star and NCAA champion at Baylor when she carved out one of the most stellar college careers in the history of the women's game -- played a little more than 24 minutes Monday, finishing with six points, four rebounds and four fouls. At one point she was forced to leave the game when a screw fell out of her knee brace, causing it to come apart.
She also left because coach Russ Pennell wanted it that way.
"She was coming in and out because she wasn't rebounding," Pennell said. "You are gonna do it right or you are going to come sit a little while."
While Griner sat, Taurasi and Candice Dupree did much of the heavy lifting for the Mercury. The veteran duo were on a roll with the pick-and-roll in the first half, Dupree going into the locker room with 20 points (she finished with 22). Taurasi ended up with 18 points, 10 assists -- and never a doubt that Griner's shot was going in.
"Literally, the minute she caught it and made her motion to shoot, I knew it was going in," Taurasi said. "When she turns and shoots with confidence, you pretty much can't contest it. For her to be up and down this whole series and to be able to take that shot when we need it the most and have the confidence to do it, it just tells you a lot about Brittney."
Taurasi has had more than a little to do with Griner's confidence this season. She has mentored the young star, been a calming presence. Nobody has been-there, done-that more than Taurasi, who is now 6-0 in decisive playoff games with the Mercury.
When Parker scored with 7.0 seconds on the clock to give the Sparks a 77-76 lead, Griner looked at Taurasi.
"I turn to D for everything. She's seen it, I haven't. I have to look to her," Griner said. "She just tells you, 'It's going to be OK. Keep playing, get the stop, get the ball back and we'll be fine."
"We just got in the huddle and said, 'This is what it's about. If we want to win, we need to get a score and a stop,'" Taurasi said. "A lot of games come down to that. Sometimes it's in the second quarter. This time is was on the very last possession."
In the end, it wasn't really more complicated than that. Griner got the score. Parker was denied again. And both will remember this feeling for a long time.