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WNBA season in review: Phoenix Mercury flame out in turbulent year

The Aces proved too much for the Mercury in their first-round series. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Mercury’s season officially came to a close Saturday, as the team fell to the Las Vegas Aces in a Game 2 blowout to close out their first-round playoff series.

The 117-80 scoreline would imply an implosion, but the Mercury left the contest with plenty to take proud in, even after enduring a season marked by turmoil.

Phoenix Mercury: Year in Review

What went right?

Not too much went Phoenix’s way this season, as the team battled injury, absences and general turbulence in the follow-up to its 2021 run to the WNBA Finals.

Under rookie coach Vanessa Nygaard, the Mercury stumbled to a 2-8 start, looking far from their playoff best. But the team did engineer a turnaround, ending the season with a 15-21 record and a playoff berth.

With limited resources, Phoenix fought to secure the team’s 10th straight postseason appearance, locking up the eighth and final playoff spot.

What went wrong?

Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained in Russia since February. Her plight made the 2022 campaign an emotional one for the entire WNBA, but especially for Griner’s teammates in Phoenix.

In early August, the Mercury star was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony on drug charges. The U.S. government is working to secure her release through a prisoner swap.

“It’s heavy. It’s just heavy y’all,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “Y’all asking these questions don’t really take away from our trauma. You just add to our trauma. We can break down and cry in front of y’all, so you can see how we feel. I don’t know what else to really say about it. It’s our sister. This is not some random Jane off the street. It’s not anything we’re politicizing. It’s a human being and this is our real life friend and real life sister.”

While Griner’s situation makes the more mundane trials of the WNBA season seem small, the Mercury roster became more and more depleted as the season continued.

The team agreed to a contract divorce with Tina Charles in June. Then, veteran guard Diana Taurasi suffered a quad injury that sidelined her for the end of the regular season and the playoffs. Diggins-Smith stepped away from the team due to personal reasons, and she also missed the end of the regular season and the playoffs.

Things went from bad to worse for Phoenix in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Aces, as Shey Peddy went down with a no-contact injury, rupturing her Achilles.

“I don’t know that anybody in this league has been dealt a tougher hand than Vanessa Nygaard,” said Aces head coach Becky Hammon after Game 1.

Diamond DeShields, who averaged 19.5 points and 4.5 rebounds during the playoffs, spoke to the toll of the mounting setbacks on her and her team.

“At a certain point when you take enough hits, you get tired of people saying how strong you are,” said DeShields after the Mercury’s Game 2 loss. “I’m proud to have shared the floor with this team this year.”

What comes next?

Much remains in the air for Phoenix heading into the offseason, but the team’s primary focus almost certainly remains their push for Griner’s safe return to the United States.

“There were a lot of challenges, just really proud of our team and grateful for the opportunity to represent the Phoenix Mercury. They have great fight, great grit. They’re hardy, they’re tough,” said Nygaard following the Mercury’s playoff exit. “But we know there’s bigger things in life, too. As hard as our season was, it’s not as hard as BG’s experience right now being in a Russian jail. So, we try to keep all that in perspective.”

On the court, the Mercury will have to decide what pieces to build around.

Diggins-Smith’s late-season absence and public spats with Nygaard have led to speculation about the 32-year-old’s future in Phoenix, though team ownership has insisted she will be back next season. Taurasi is also a question mark, with the 40-year-old’s retirement likely on the horizon.

After a taxing and chaotic season, the Mercury will look to reassess and rebuild in hopes of a smoother and more consistent 2023.