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With Griner in the middle, Mercury aims for title

AP - Sports

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Phoenix Mercury race into the WNBA playoffs with the wind of a record-breaking season at their back.

They won a league-record 29 games, 16 of them in a row in one stretch to tie a WNBA mark.

They have a multitude of talent - Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor and DeWonna Barner.

But the biggest reason, quite literally, for Phoenix's success, is the young woman in the middle. Brittney Griner is emerging as the dominant player she was expected to be when the Mercury chose her as the No. 1 pick out of Baylor 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,'' she 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 and All-Star Candice 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.''

Griner's first year in the league was full of distractions, including coming out as lesbian and releasing her candid memoir, ''In My Skin.''

''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 a game,

She even has had a couple of dunks, and even a 3-pointer at the All-Star Game - she had never tried one in a regular WNBA game.

Griner and her teammates, led by the six-time All-Star Taurasi, went 29-5 this season. In addition to their 16-game overall win streak, they 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 have reached the conference finals in three of the last four years but have not 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.''

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