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What Diana Taurasi’s injury means for the Mercury’s playoff hopes

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JUNE 27: Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball during the second half of the WNBA game at Footprint Center on June 27, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Mercury defeated the Fever 83-71. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Mercury have three games left on the regular-season calendar. In order to control their own fate and clinch a playoff spot a year after playing for a WNBA championship, they need to win their final three games.

That feat got exponentially more difficult on Monday. The Mercury announced that 10-time WNBA All-Star Diana Taurasi, the team’s second-leading scorer, will miss the remainder of the regular season with a quad strain.

The Mercury are competing with Atlanta, New York, Minnesota and Los Angeles for the last two playoff spots. Dallas has also yet to clinch a spot, but with just one more win needed, the Wings are on the verge of locking it up.

Taurasi has led the Mercury in scoring in eight games this season while averaging 16.7 points across 31 total games. Which leads to the first and most obvious question for the Mercury’s playoff chances: Who starts in her place?

Only five active players have made multiple starts for the Mercury this season: Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diamond DeShields, Sophie Cunningham, Shey Peddy and Brianna Turner. That’s the lineup that Phoenix went with in an 87-63 loss to Connecticut on Aug. 2, the first game that Taurasi missed.

Together, those five players average 49.6 points per game, making up about 60 percent of the team’s total scoring. Taurasi accounts for 20 percent of Phoenix’s points, second only to Diggins-Smith, whose 19.7 per contest make up 24 percent of the Mercury’s point production.

The Mercury signed Yvonne “Vonnie” Turner to a hardship contract on Monday to fill the roster spot. Turner, a 12-year pro who has spent most of her career overseas, played for Phoenix from 2017-19. In stints with the Dream and the Lynx this season, she averaged 4.3 points and two rebounds in six games.

Though Turner was signed to replace Taurasi on the roster, it seems unlikely the guard will work her way into the starting lineup.

The Mercury’s best bet is to go with the established players they know, and the lineup they used when Taurasi was first sidelined. Turner, who was named to the Big-12 All-Defensive team three times during her college career at Nebraska, is best utilized coming off the bench for her defensive acumen and experience.

With the starting lineup issue resolved, the Mercury still have a shot at the postseason. Their final three games come against Minnesota, Dallas and Chicago. At first glance, it seems plausible for Phoenix to win two of those games, with the Sky being the most difficult opponent. But in reality, that’s a terrible draw for the Mercury.

They are 0-2 against Dallas this season, 0-2 against Chicago, and 0-3 against the Lynx, and all of those losses came with Taurasi on the floor. Some of them also came before the team’s contract divorce with Tina Charles, so chemistry issues may have been a factor. That points to the chaos the Mercury have endured this season, with the Taurasi injury simply the latest occurrence in a long list of setbacks.

Even if Phoenix does get into the postseason, advancing past the first round would be a daunting task without their second-leading scorer and 18-year veteran. The Mercury haven’t ruled out Taurasi returning for a postseason run, like she did last year on an injured ankle, but it’s too soon to tell how capable she would be in that scenario.

The Mercury have weathered all kinds of storms this season, from the traumatic wrongful detainment of Brittney Griner in Russia, to the Charles issue and conflict between players and the coaching staff. This setback could be the final blow to their season, whether that happens in the next three contests or in the playoffs.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.