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Brittney Griner's toughest obstacles are already behind her

Phoenix center Brittney Griner saw the worst-case scenario flash before her eyes as she felt pain ripping through her body. She thought her WNBA season was over, and her upcoming overseas season wouldn't happen.

"I started freaking out," said Griner of the gruesome-looking double injury she suffered on July 14 against Minnesota. "Everybody was kind of holding me and saying, 'OK, calm down. What hurts?' And I was like, 'Everything hurts!'"

The 6-foot-9 Griner jumped while defending Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, who pump-faked her. As Griner came back down, she landed awkwardly on her right ankle.

"I tried to catch myself, but my left leg folded in on me," she said. "I was like Bambi on skates."

She can joke about it now, but at the time: "It felt like I had broken my ankle and torn my ACL," she said. "It was the most pain I've ever been in."

Yet here she is, competing in the WNBA playoffs. Her injuries weren't as bad as she'd feared: a deep bone bruise on her left knee and a sprained right ankle. Griner was initially told she might be out eight weeks. She made it back in four, returning on Aug. 12.

And she'll be a key figure if the Mercury are to rally from down 2-0 in their best-of-five semifinal series with defending champion Los Angeles. Phoenix will host Game 3 on Sunday (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET).

But just the fact that Phoenix has gotten this far -- with Griner leading the way after missing eight games with her injuries -- has been a triumph for her.

"When I saw it, I thought she was done for the year," Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said of the play where Griner was hurt. "Anytime you take four weeks off, it takes time to get back into rhythm. But it shows a lot about her maturity now.

"She's really developed as a basketball player; really since January, she's gone to another level. And I think she just realized how important she is to the team, how much we need her."

Griner has talked about how her time overseas playing in Russia has helped her find more peace of mind. In part, just because it's a way to nearly unplug from the rest of the world, if you so choose. Griner also has made improvements in her play.

"I wanted to work on stretching my game out," Griner said of how she's more comfortable shooting farther away from the basket. She also has strived to refine her footwork. It has paid off; the only thing that has really slowed her this year was the injuries.

Griner missed some time her rookie year of 2013 with a knee injury. She also had to sit out the championship-clinching Game 3 of the 2014 WNBA Finals because of an eye injury suffered in Game 2. But for the most part -- in college, in the WNBA and overseas -- she has been healthy.

So this summer was one of her biggest challenges. She said her return is a testament to the Mercury's medical staff, her dedication to rehab and her tougher overall mindset in this, her fifth WNBA season.

"Coming back from it wasn't fun," Griner acknowledged. "You can't control injuries, but you can control how hard you work to come back. I was able to lock in and do what I needed to do. And that was maturity, too. Some years, I probably wouldn't have responded very well.

"At first, I had my knee immobilized, and my ankle was in a boot. For a while, I was in a wheelchair, but I was still doing upper-body exercises."

That included, under the supervision of a trainer, wheeling herself up ramps in the parking garage that adjoins Talking Stick Arena in downtown Phoenix. Griner also would do exercises as she watched Mercury games on television, all the while, "Feeling mad I wasn't out on the court."

When Griner returned, like any player who has been hurt, she initially was worried about reinjuring herself.

"It took me two or three games to get it out of my head," she said. "I told myself, 'It's basketball, things are going to happen. I'll deal with it.'"

Griner really hasn't missed a beat. She finished the regular season with the league's top scoring average (21.9 PPG), and is at 20.8 for the Mercury's four playoff games.

"Brittney is a phenomenal player," Sparks center/forward Candace Parker said. "At her size, to be able to have the skill set that she has ... for her, we just try to make things difficult."

The semifinal opener Tuesday was frustrating for Griner, who finished with 18 points but fouled out with 4:44 to play in what ended as a 79-66 Sparks victory. Her sixth foul was actually called on a video review: She hit the Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike with an elbow as she was turning around to make a move to the basket.

"Honestly, I really didn't try to throw [the elbow]," Griner said. "I would never intentionally try to hurt Nneka. I was just trying to make a strong move. Because every time I turned, they weren't giving me the [call against the Sparks]. So I thought, 'Let me go to the basket hard.'"

That time it didn't turn out well for Griner. Of course, with her size, Griner always has posed some difficulty for officials in terms of correctly perceiving what fouls to call both for and against her. She has had to get used to a lot of contact -- and she prefers that as opposed to games she thinks are called too closely.

But Griner knows that adjusting to officiating is just part of being a pro. She has become more and more comfortable with that, and also with being a player from whom so much is expected.

Asked the biggest change in her game since entering the WNBA as the No. 1 pick in 2013, she said it's her willingness to take big shots.

"When I first came into the league, I didn't want the ball in my hands," she said. "Now, at the end of the game and we need a bucket, I'm like, 'Gimme the ball. I'll either make the shot or get it to somebody who will.'

"It's just maturity and being confident. The coaches have more confidence in me, running a lot of offense through me."

Griner had 16 points in the Mercury's 86-72 loss Thursday, and she knows there are things she could have done better. But with all she has overcome this summer, she relishes the challenge of trying to come back against the Sparks.

"When they double-team me, I have to be a little more patient," Griner said. "And turnovers -- I have to do a better job of catching the ball.

"I feel like we're close; we're right there. We just can't get over that little hill. But now we're going to be in front of our home crowd, and that will give us a little more momentum."

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