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WNBA Playoff Preview Guide Phoenix Mercury (vs. Las Vegas Aces): Mercury silenced haters just by making playoffs

Everyone counted the Phoenix Mercury out when it was announced that Skylar Diggins-Smith would miss the rest of the regular season for personal reasons. Here they are in the playoffs. The only problem is now they have to contain Kelsey Plum, which they haven’t been able to do in three tries.

Indiana Fever v Phoenix Mercury
Sophie Cunningham will have Mercury fans on the edge of their seats, even though their team is a major underdog.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Mercury have consistently been one of the most disappointing teams in our midseason roundtables over the past few years and I’ve been one of the people labeling them as such. And yet, with the Minnesota Lynx missing the postseason due to a loss to the Connecticut Sun on Sunday, the Mercury now hold the longest active streak of playoff appearances in the WNBA.

In 2020, I was responsible for their one midseason “most disappointing” vote, while the Indiana Fever led the way with two votes. The Mercury (then 6-5) were only slightly underachieving, being in sixth place when I felt they should be in fourth. They would finish 13-9 in the regular season and two points away from an appearance in the semifinals, even without Brittney Griner (personal reasons).

In 2021, the Mercury (then 7-8) led the way with two of three votes, but of course finished 19-13 in the regular season and two wins away from a WNBA title. It was a run that convincingly erased any thoughts that they were a team with poor chemistry or that failed to live up to its talent level.

2022 saw the Mercury reclaim the distinction of most-disappointing, as they received six of six votes at midseason, at which point they were 10-14 and had parted ways with Tina Charles. But, in the team’s fourth-to-last and second-to-last regular-season games, games played without Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Tina Charles (four superstars the Mercury expected to have this season), Diamond DeShields paved the way to victory with 25- and 24-point performances, respectively, landing the Mercury a spot in the playoffs.

So, let’s again give Phoenix a break, because getting in in that fashion is truly remarkable (even if it is with a 15-21 record) and because, with the Lynx dynasty officially over, they are now the standard for being consistently good, not consistently disappointing.

The Mercury are the No. 8 seed and will face the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces in the first round. Here is a preview of that series from the Mercury’s perspective:


Schedule

Game 1: Wednesday, Aug. 17 at 10 p.m. ET at Las Vegas Aces (ESPN)

Game 2: Saturday, Aug. 20 at 9 p.m. ET at Las Vegas Aces (ESPN2)

Game 3: Tuesday, Aug. 23 at TBD vs. Las Vegas Aces (if necessary)

Regular-season series (Aces won 3-0)

May 6 in Phoenix: Aces 106, Mercury 88

This was opening day; Skylar Diggins-Smith started off her season with a 25-point performance in defeat. Diana Taurasi added nine points and an impressive nine assists. Shey Peddy had 16 points and Tina Charles had 15 in her Mercury debut.

Diamond DeShields and Brianna Turner did not play in this game.

The Mercury's defense was clearly the problem in this game as it allowed the Aces to shoot 58.2 percent from the field and 52.4 percent from three (11-of-21). Phoenix also lost the battle on the boards 38-26. One bright spot for the Mercury was that they forced 16 turnovers while turning it over just 10 times. The worst quarter for Phoenix was the first, which it lost 31-17.

The story of Vegas’ season has been its starters and the opener set things in motion with all five scoring in double figures. Kelsey Plum had probably the strongest performance with 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Dearica Hamby was Vegas’ leading scorer with 24 points, seven boards and two blocks. She will likely not be available for Vegas in the first round of the playoffs (right knee bone contusion). MVP co-frontrunner A’ja Wilson had 15 points and 11 boards, Jackie Young had 20 points and four helpers and Chelsea Gray was good for 11 points and five helpers. Plum was 5-of-9 from distance. Hamby was 11-of-14 from the field and Young was 8-of-10.

One key weakness for the Aces this year has been their bench, but Theresa Plaisance had eight points and nine rebounds in this game and Sydney Colson had five assists.

May 17 in Vegas: Aces 86, Mercury 74

Phoenix led this game by eight after one and by four at the break. But it lost the third 30-12 and was unable to pull off a comeback, though it did cut it to eight with 1:52 to go before Vegas closed on a 7-3 run.

Very promising that the Mercury had control for much of this game. But they no longer have Charles, who led the way with 17 points and nine rebounds. Peddy had another strong performance with 13 points and four assists. Diggins-Smith, who will likely will be unavailable for the playoffs, added 10 points and six helpers.

All seven of Phoenix’s key rotation players this season played in this game: Diggins-Smith, Taurasi, Charles, DeShields, Sophie Cunningham, Peddy and Turner.

Vegas’ shooting wasn't out of this world in this game, but still very good at 46.8 percent from the field. It made nine threes, one more than Phoenix. One concerning thing for the Mercury was 26 free throw attempts allowed. Another was their 18 turnovers, as they lost that margin by eight.

This was a more typical bench contribution from Vegas (four points, four rebounds, two assists, no steals and no blocks from the entire group). All of the starters played at least 32 minutes. Plum was again the Mercury-killer with 20 points. Wilson had 16 points and 10 rebounds, Gray had 14 points and nine assists and Young had 19 points. Young was 3-of-5 from beyond the arc and Plum was 4-of-8. Wilson was 8-of-11 at the stripe.

May 21 in Vegas: Aces 100, Mercury 80

This will be a key game for Phoenix to look at because Diggins-Smith did not play. The Mercury again won the first quarter (25-22), but were again doomed by a terrible third quarter, losing it 38-18.

The two players Phoenix will likely have to rely on in the first round, DeShields and Cunningham, led the way with 19 and 17 points, respectively, in this game. Taurasi, who will also be relied upon if available, was third in scoring with 14 points and added seven assists.

The Aces shot 47.9 percent from the field, which is roughly what the Chicago Sky shot for the season to lead the league. Vegas matched the Mercury with nine made threes. Free throws were again a concern with Vegas attempting 30. This time it was the guards getting to line with Wilson attempting just four freebies and Plum and Young both attempting seven. The Mercury turned the ball over 15 times, losing that margin by five.

Plum led the Aces with 24 points while Young had 20. Gray had 13 points and five assists and Plaisance had 11 points and nine boards off the bench. Wilson played just 22:58 and was held to nine points and five boards. Plum was 3-of-6 from three.

Summary

Hot overall shooting from Vegas was a theme in all three games. The Aces shoot 46 percent from the field on the season and the Mercury shoot 42.9 percent, so if all goes according to plan that will again be an advantage for Vegas. Plum and Young were the Aces’ two most effective scorers against the Mercury this season, but if Phoenix pays extra attention to them, Wilson might go off. Plum was 12-of-23 from three over the three games; Gray averaged 6.3 assists.

In the game that the Mercury held the Aces under 90 and lost by just 12, they allowed just four bench points. When they gave up triple digits to the Aces and lost by 20 and 18, respectively, they gave up 21 and 16 bench points, respectively. Part of that was the Vegas bench seeing more time, but obviously a key for the Mercury will be going on runs when the Aces’ starters are off the floor.

Diggins-Smith has been by far the Mercury's best player this year and likely will not be available in the playoffs (personal reasons). Without her, the Mercury lost to the Aces by 20. They need to look back at that game and see what they can improve on. DeShields and Cunningham came up big in that game and they have been guiding the team lately as well in the absence of Diggins-Smith and Taurasi (quad). Phoenix won’t want to shake up what they did, but perhaps a bigger game from Peddy will be needed. She had just five points in the game that Diggins-Smith missed, but averaged 14.5 in her other two outings against the Aces.

Phoenix stars

Diana Taurasi

The GOAT. She played like it in last year’s postseason and nearly won Phoenix a fourth championship. This July she had a four-game stretch where she scored 29, 23, 28 and 30 points. The Mercury went 3-1 over that span with wins over the No. 4 Seattle Storm and No. 5 Washington Mystics. If she’s 100 percent, she is Phoenix’s best player in this series.

Diamond DeShields

A 2019 All-Star for a reason. Her athleticism and finishing ability in transition are enviable and give her a very high ceiling as a star. Phoenix is the team that believed in her star potential and sought her this offseason. She is still leaving something to be desired most of the time, but, at the same time, two phenomenal performances from her are the reason the Mercury are in the playoffs. If Taurasi is out, this is her chance to prove she can be a No. 1 player on a good team. She has championship-winning experience from last year when she played for the Sky, but that was not in a starring role.

Sophie Cunningham

My vote for this year’s Most Improved Player. She deserves to be listed as a star now with a 36-point game to her credit this season. Her 3-point shooting won the Mercury their first-round playoff game last year and if they can return home for Game 3 this year, it would definitely get the crowd going. She is shooting 40 percent from distance on the year with 2.5 makes per game.

Phoenix X factor

Shey Peddy

Peddy was 31 years old in the wubble and was playing a slightly increased role in her second WNBA season due to the opt outs the Washington Mystics were dealing with. Washington waived her during the season with the intention of re-signing her, but Peddy chose to switch over to the Mercury and the rest has been history. She went up from 12.9 minutes per game to 17.6 for the rest of 2020, 17.5 in 2021 and 28.6 in 2022 at age 33. She has become an established WNBA player despite not getting her start until age 30 and averaged 9.9 points, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals this season. The Mercury will look for her to knock down threes at clutch moments and take the team to another level.

Phoenix strengths

  • Made threes per game (8.8, 4th)
  • Getting to the line (18.6 FTA per game, 6th)
  • Free throw percentage (81.7 percent, 5th)
  • Taking care of the ball (13.3 TOV per game, 5th least)
  • Forcing turnovers (14.2 per game, 5th)

Phoenix weaknesses

  • Defense (106.4 defensive rating, 10th)
  • Field goal percentage (42.9 percent, 10th)
  • 3-point percentage (32.9 percent, 11th)
  • Offensive rebounds per game (6.8, 12th)
  • Offensive rebounds allowed per game (9.7, 12th least)
  • Defensive rebounds per game (24.3. T9th)
  • Defensive rebounds allowed per game (27.5, 10th least)
  • 3-point defense (36.6 percent, 11th)
  • Sending opponents to the line (19.4 FTA per game, 8th least)

Injury report

Phoenix

Skylar Diggins-Smith (personal reasons)

Not officially ruled out for playoffs according to freelance Mercury writer Jeff Metcalfe. “Not expected to return” according to source for The Next.

Diana Taurasi (right quad)

No recent updates. Missed regular-season finale. Mercury spokesperson to Alexa Philippou of ESPN for Aug. 8 article: “She is out for the remainder of the regular season and will provide more info if/when we do make the playoffs.”

Kia Nurse (ACL)

Not officially ruled out for playoffs according to freelance Mercury writer Jeff Metcalfe. Has missed entire season so far.

Brittney Griner

Wrongfully detained in Russia.

Las Vegas

Dearica Hamby (right knee bone contusion)

Missed regular-season finale. Two weeks from Aug. 10 is the day after Game 3 of the first-round series.

Prediction

There is a small fear factor for the Aces in that the Mercury eliminated them the playoffs last year (in the semifinals) and in heartbreaking fashion where the pressure of being favored got to them. But that Mercury team had Griner, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi at her best. If you’re Vegas this year, you’re afraid of Cunningham getting hot and Phoenix going on some runs, but you have no business letting this go to three games. The Sky gifted you Phoenix by beating the Mercury in their regular-season finale, when it could have been the New York Liberty and their big three of Sabrina Ionescu, Natasha Howard and Betnijah Laney.

Vegas in 2.