Hats off to Brittney Griner and Tim Howard. Or perhaps I should say, hands up! The Phoenix Mercury center and Team USA goaltender both showcased incredible defensive performances this week. On Sunday, Griner recorded 11 blocked shots against the Tulsa Shock, the most ever in a WNBA game. On Tuesday, Howard made 16 saves during Team USA's game against Belgium, the most in a World Cup game since 1966.
While scoring gets a lot of praise and attention, Griner and Howard showed us why defense deserves more applause.
It's a delight to watch the 6-foot-8 Griner, with an intimidating 88-inch wingspan, greet Mercury opponents in and outside of paint by high-fiving their shots to Neptune. Sure, Griner can score (she had 23 points on Sunday) and dunk (she had two jams in her league debut in 2013, yet another WNBA record). But Griner's defensive chops cause jaw-dropping gasps for every ball she swats away with her "Get that out of here" flair.
When Griner is on the floor, it’s a different type of basketball game—just ask Shock center Courtney Paris who was rejected three times by Griner. Her blocking skills don't just make her one of the game's best rim protectors, it also allows Griner to change the game with one deflection, or 11, as she did in the 80-77 win against the Shock.
Howard, whose combination of leaps, dives, and kick saves helped him become a human wall against Belgium's steady attack, was impenetrable for 90 scoreless minutes. Although Belgium won 2-1 in extra time, Howard's performance will go down as one of the best in World Cup history. The netminder had 39 shots fly toward him — each one gut-wrenchingly uneasy to watch for fear of potential damage.
But it was Howard's precision and timing in denying Belgium strikers that kept our eyes glued to the television and had us chanting "I believe that we will win" louder with each of his saves. He was even momentarily listed as the U.S. Secretary of Defense after someone humorously edited his Wikipedia page. It was a short-lived entry, but it summed up the appreciation of Howard’s efforts.
So let’s give a hand to Griner and Howard, who used theirs in history-making fashion. Stuffing the basket and reaching the back of the net are the plays that grab headlines and outshine a block and a save. But this week, Griner and Howard are shining examples that defense will get fans hyped and can affect the game in a major way.
Photos: Shane Bevel/NBAE via Getty Images, Themba Hadebe/AP Photos