In the gold medal game of the Tokyo Olympics earlier this month, Team USA faced a Japanese team with an average height of just 5-foot-9. Thanks in large part to that huge size advantage, Team USA cruised to a 90-75 win and a historic seventh straight Olympic title.
Leading the way in that game against Japan, Brittney Griner poured in 30 points to set a new record for the most points in a gold medal game in women's Olympic basketball history. As the 2021 WNBA season gets back underway, Griner has carried that momentum with her and is now putting the Phoenix Mercury on her back.
In a win over the Washington Mystics on Thursday night, she submitted one of her best performances of the season, going for 30 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. The Mercury have won all three of their games coming out of the break, and Griner is averaging 23 points, 9.7 rebounds, four assists and 2.7 blocks. Along the way, she became just the third player in WNBA history to reach 700 blocks, and also set a Mercury record for the most double-doubles in a season with 12.
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With Griner leading the way, the Mercury have surged into fifth place in the standings at 12-10. They're now just one game behind the Minnesota Lynx for fourth place, which would come with a first-round bye. Consistency has been an issue for this Mercury bunch over the last few seasons, but if Griner keeps playing at this level, no one is going to want to see them in the postseason.
1. Connecticut Sun (17-6) -- Last week No. 3
After getting embarrassed in the Commissioner's Cup championship, the Sun responded with two statement wins over the Lynx to improve to 17-6 and take over first place in the standings. The Sun have now won five games in a row, own the best defense in the league and are led by the MVP favorite, Jonquel Jones. There's no doubt anymore that they're a legit title contender.
2. Las Vegas Aces (17-6) -- Last week No. 2
Three straight wins for the Aces on either side of the break to improve to 17-6. That's tied for the best record in the league, but the Sun own the tiebreaker between the two teams so Las Vegas is stuck in second place. Chelsea Gray's game-winner to cap a 21-point comeback against the Mystics showed exactly why they brought her to Vegas. She gives them someone who can reliably create and make shots on the perimeter at the end of games.
3. Seattle Storm (16-7) -- Last week No. 1
The Storm returned from the Olympic break with a dominant win over the Sun in the Commissioner's Cup title game. Since then, however, they've blown two late leads to the Sky and Liberty and dropped down to third place. Both of those games came without new mom Breanna Stewart as well as Sue Bird, however, so it's hard to take too much from them. Still, those could be pivotal losses in the race for a top-two seed.
4. Phoenix Mercury (12-10) -- Last week No. 6
Since the restart, we've seen some teams flounder and some teams surge. The Mercury are one of the latter, as they've won three in a row to climb into sole possession of fifth place. They're now just one game out of a top-four spot. Brittney Griner, coming off a strong Olympic showing, has put the team on her back. Her 30-point, 12-rebound, five-assist, three-block performance in a win over the Mystics was one of the best games anyone has played all season.
5. Minnesota Lynx (13-8) -- Last week No. 4
The Lynx were riding high coming out of the Olympic break and beat the Liberty to extend their winning streak to eight games. Then they took a trip to Connecticut and were promptly humbled by the Sun, who beat them by double digits in back-to-back games and completely shut down their offense. Those losses put a serious hurting on the Lynx's hopes of making a late run for a top-two seed.
6. Chicago Sky (11-11) -- Last week No. 5
Three losses in four games has the Sky down into sixth place at 11-11. What's more concerning, however, is that Candace Parker suffered another ankle injury in their loss to the Wings. The last time she was hurt, the Sky were a mess and went 1-7. If she misses time again they could be in trouble now that they're suddenly just 1.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Mystics.
7. New York Liberty (11-12) -- Last week No. 7
Even acknowledging that Stewart and Bird weren't playing, the Liberty's double-digit fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Storm earlier this week was one of their most impressive wins of the season. Having Natasha Howard back gives them a much-needed presence in the paint and another reliable scoring option to take some of the burdens off of Betnijah Laney and the 3-point attack.
8. Los Angeles Sparks (9-13) -- Last week No. 10
Here come the Sparks. After Nneka Ogwumike's buzzer-beater on Thursday night, they've now ripped off three straight wins to open up their second half of the season. All of a sudden, they're just half a game behind the Wings for the eighth and final playoff spot. They have a tough schedule down the stretch, but if they can keep defending at a high level, they have a real chance to extend their postseason streak to 10 years.
9. Dallas Wings (10-13) -- Last week No. 9
The Wings keep doing just enough to hang around in the playoff race. This time, it was ending a four-game losing streak with a much-needed road win over the Sky. Their inconsistency combined with the jumbled back-end of the playoff race opens up all sorts of outcomes, but one thing in the Wings' favor is their easy schedule. They only play two teams with winning records the rest of the season.
10. Washington Mystics (8-13) -- Last week No. 8
The Mystics had a rough first half of the season, especially in regards to injuries, but they managed to keep themselves in playoff position at the Olympic break. That, along with the expected returns of a number of players, meant there was a lot of optimism in Washington about a possible late-season surge. Instead, they blew a 21-point lead to the Aces in their first game back, and have now lost three in a row to fall to 8-13 and down into 10th place.
11. Atlanta Dream (6-16) -- Last week No. 11
The Dream have now lost seven games in a row, and since an encouraging 4-2 start, they're a woeful 2-14 over the last two-plus months. As playoff hopes drift further out of sight, the focus turns to the future. In particular, whether Chennedy Carter has one in Atlanta. She has not yet rejoined the team since being suspended prior to the All-Star break, and while it's unlikely she's traded before Saturday's deadline, this episode doesn't bode well for a long-term partnership.
12. Indiana Fever (4-18) -- Last week No. 12
The Fever have returned to their losing ways out of the break, but they were at least highly competitive in both games -- something they couldn't always say for stretches early in the season. There won't be a playoff push in Indianapolis, so the final month of the season will be about finding positives to take into 2022.