PHOENIX (AP) — When the Phoenix Mercury used their No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft to select Brittney Griner, they became instant favorites to win the next WNBA championship.
Phoenix already had a roster full of All-Stars. Adding the 6-foot-8 star from Baylor, a dunking and shot-blocking sensation, likely would make the Mercury unstoppable.
The title bid came up short in 2013 as the Mercury struggled with injuries and Griner adjusted to the rigors of the professional game.
A year later, the Mercury got their championship and could be in line for many more after an 87-82 win Friday night over the Chicago Sky capped a three-game sweep in the WNBA finals.
“They are a phenomenal team,” Chicago’s star Elena Delle Donne said. “They have been amazing all year.”
After being swept out of the Western Conference finals by Minnesota last season, the Mercury appeared to be on a let’s-make-history mission this year.
Phoenix got off to a solid start and ran away from the rest of the league with a 16-game winning streak, two short of the WNBA record. The Mercury finished the regular season 29-5 to break the WNBA record for victories and stretched their home winning streak to a franchise-long 15 games.
Phoenix swept Los Angeles in the opening round of the playoffs and knocked off rival Minnesota in the conference finals with a dominating Game 3 performance.
The Mercury opened the finals by running through the record book while winning the first two games by a combined 50 points and closed the series out by showing off their versatility, holding off the Sky without Griner, who suffered a scratched eye in Game 2, for the franchise’s third championship.
“At the beginning of the year, I sensed that we wanted it, but wanting it is not enough — every team wants it,” said Diana Taurasi, the finals MVP. “But there was something extra, a mental fortitude that we had when we were all on the court together that’s hard to get.”
It starts with Taurasi.
She’s been one of the WNBA’s best players since winning three NCAA titles with Connecticut, leading the league in scoring five times and earning the 2009 MVP award.
Taurasi led the league in scoring last season and assists this season — a first in WNBA history — to finish second in MVP voting to Minnesota’s Maya Moore. She’s had a knack for making big plays at big moments and did throughout the playoffs, most notably in the clinching game, when she scored 14 of Phoenix’s last 20 points, including a running three-point play with 14.3 seconds left.
“That’s exactly what everyone saw: The world’s best, doing what she does best,” Delle Donne said. “Just putting her team on her shoulders.”
With Taurasi at the helm and Griner in the middle, the Mercury could be set up to add to their trophy case.
Griner returned to the Mercury this season stronger and more confident after working on her post moves in China during the offseason. Known primarily for her dunking ability, she also developed a more well-round offensive game, including a hook shot, to average 15.6 points.
Griner also honed her defensive skills, setting a WNBA record with 129 blocked shots while using her agility to cover high pick-and-rolls and still get back to defend the rim. She was selected the WNBA’s defensive player of the year and joined Taurasi on All-WNBA first team.
Former All-Star Penny Taylor came back from missing most of the past two seasons with a knee injury to show she can still play at 31, averaging 10.5 points while shooting 47 percent from the floor.
Younger stars Candice Dupree, who had 26 points in the finals opener, and DeWanna Bonner are proven scorers who are difficult matchups because of their size and athletic ability.
And then there’s Taurasi. She signed a multiyear contract extension during the season and shows no signs of slowing at 32.
“I should just ride off into the sunset right now,” Taurasi said. “This is such a good feeling.”