PHOENIX (AP) — The Phoenix Mercury head into the WNBA playoffs after a record-breaking season.
They won a league-record 29 games, including 16 straight during that stretch, and boast a multitude of talent in All-Stars Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner.
But the biggest reason, quite literally, for Phoenix's success is the young woman in the middle. Brittney Griner is emerging as a dominant player after going No. 1 in the draft last year.
Griner's rookie season was rocky. But now the 6-foot-8 center is a force.
"Just my confidence level, honestly, is just different than last year," she said. "Last year, I really didn't know what to expect — tip-toeing, trying to find my place. This year, I think I found it. I'm playing with a lot more confidence and everything I do. That definitely changes everything when you're playing."
A winter in China did wonders for her confidence and her game.
"The development of Brittney has been great, but it's not a surprise," Mercury first-year coach Sandy Brondello said. "It's really what we expected of her, especially from last year and it's more about her development. What we see this year, we are going to see an even better version next year."
Phoenix, with the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, begins a best-of-three series against the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday night. Phoenix won all five regular-season games against Los Angeles, and Griner was a big reason.
"On the court, I kind of know what to expect," Griner said. "Kind of found myself, my game, especially on the offensive end — pivoting out of double-teams, getting around a defender. On the defensive end, definitely came along more this year than last year. It's just flowing, when I'm on the court I am having fun."
Her teammates have seen it as well.
"She's improved a lot from last year," said nine-year veteran Dupree. "I'm not sure what she did over in China, but whatever it was it worked. She's a lot more poised on the block, she does a great job of passing out of double- and triple-teams. Hopefully, she can carry that over to the playoffs."
After leading Baylor to the 2013 NCAA Final Four, she came out that April and was chosen by Phoenix in the draft. In the offseason, she headed to China to improve her post moves.
"Definitely more quiet this year," she said. "I was able to focus on basketball. That was key, that was big for me, not having to worry about x-factors."
This season, Griner averaged 15.6 points and eight rebounds.
She's made a three dunks this season, including one in the All-Star game. She even hit a 3-pointer at the midseason classic — which she never tried in a regular WNBA game.
Griner and her teammates, led by the six-time All-Star Taurasi, finished 29-5 and won 15 in a row at home. Taurasi became the first player in league history to lead the WNBA in scoring one season and assists in another. Taurasi also moved into second place on the WNBA's career scoring list.
The Mercury, which reached the conference finals in three of the last four years, haven't gotten to the finals since winning their second championship in 2009.
"What's our goal?" Brondello said. "We have achieved getting that first seed. It's more about coming ready to play. We don't look too far ahead. We want to win a championship but we have to make sure that we are ready to play on Friday. "
Griner enters the series on a personal high, announcing last week she is engaged to Tulsa Shock star Glory Johnson.
"It's definitely been a great year," Griner said. "Now it's playoff time. It's go time."