Despite playing with worry about the imprisonment of Brittney Griner, parting ways with Tina Charles and not having Diana Taurasi or Skylar Diggins-Smith for the last week of the regular season, the Phoenix Mercury persevered to make the WNBA playoffs.
The Mercury earned their spot even before their regular-season finale against Chicago on Sunday. With Minnesota's loss at Connecticut, the Lynx were eliminated, and then New York beat Atlanta, eliminating the Dream.
Thus, the last two playoff spots went to the Mercury and the Liberty on Sunday. They join Las Vegas, Chicago, Connecticut, Seattle, Washington and Dallas. The WNBA will return to an all-series format in the postseason this year after single-elimination games in the first and second rounds the last six years.
Phoenix, founded in 1997, is one of the original WNBA franchises, and the Mercury have won three WNBA titles. This is their 17th playoff appearance. But this season has been the franchise's most challenging to date off the court.
Coach Sandy Brondello was fired after eight seasons, despite a trip to the WNBA Finals last year, and replaced by Vanessa Nygaard, who had never been a WNBA head coach before. Griner, the 2013 No. 1 draft pick and a big part of the Mercury's 2014 title team, has been in jail in Russia on drug charges since mid-February and was recently sentenced to nine years in prison.
The Mercury have talked all season about how that situation has weighted heavily on them. They had to play at Connecticut on Aug. 4 after watching Griner's sentencing earlier that day. After that game, Diggins-Smith was clearly upset talking to the media. She did not play in Phoenix's next game, Aug. 6, for what was listed as a non-COVID-related illness, and then missed the final three games of the season for personal reasons.
Diggins-Smith's relationship with Nygaard appeared strained all season, and at this point the former Notre Dame star's future with the Mercury seems uncertain. She has one more year left on her current deal with the team.
Taurasi last played Aug. 2 but has been out since then due to a quad injury, and her status for the playoffs has not been made official.
The Mercury also parted ways with one of their marquee free-agent signings in the off-season, agreeing to a contract divorce (similar to a buyout in the NBA) with Charles in late June. Charles was not happy with her role in Phoenix and left to join rival Seattle, which is also in the playoffs.
But even with the injuries and absences, the Mercury were able to avoid missing the playoffs for what would have been the first time since 2012. Sophie Cunningham became a candidate for most improved player in the league this season, and another of the Mercury's free agents, Diamond DeShields, has been a strong contributor.