Just when things seemed to be looking up for the Phoenix Mercury in the 2022 WNBA playoff race, a curveball was thrown their way Monday: Diana Taurasi will miss the remainder of the regular season, which wraps up Sunday, with a quad strain. The WNBA's all-time leading scorer might be available if Phoenix advances to the postseason, but the Mercury won't update her status until then.
The news was the latest blow to a franchise that has been without Brittney Griner all season, dealt with the midseason departure of 2012 league MVP Tina Charles and suffered a slew of other injuries and illnesses that have made lineup consistency difficult to come by.
Now, a squad that was expected by some to be a superteam this season will be without their longtime cornerstone and one of the greatest to ever play the game for the near future, the potential salve of a postseason berth despite their roller-coaster season in jeopardy.
But Taurasi isn't the only star who'll miss meaningful time: The Dallas Wings -- who clinched a playoff berth Monday -- announced on Tuesday that Arike Ogunbowale will miss the remainder of the regular season and the Wings' first-round matchup with an abdominal injury.
Taurasi's injury will have a ripple effect on the overall playoff race as the regular season winds down -- the Mercury are one of five teams still competing for the final two playoff spots with five days to go -- while Ogunbowale's absence could impact the Wings' ceiling once they reach the postseason.
Three-time WNBA champion Phoenix, which reached the Finals last season, is looking to maintain its place as one of the most successful WNBA franchises. Even though a title seems out of reach in 2022, the Mercury have still been a fixture in the playoffs for most of Taurasi's career, reaching the postseason in all but two seasons since 2007: 2008 and 2012, the latter which Taurasi missed the majority of with a hip injury.
After Tuesday's games, ESPN's WNBA BPI estimated the Mercury to have a 72.2% chance of making the postseason -- the best odds of the five teams remaining in the playoff hunt. Helping their prospects is that their final three regular-season games are all home at the Footprint Center, where they are 10-5 this season.
Taurasi might not be close to her prime anymore and more of a liability defensively than Phoenix would like to admit: Phoenix allows 106.0 points per 100 possessions with her on the court versus 92.0 with her off it, good for a team-worst 14-point swing on the defensive end. But it's difficult to see the Mercury -- who most likely would end up facing a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the first round if they advance to the playoffs -- making an improbable run without Taurasi's ability to go off offensively in big moments, as she has demonstrated throughout her career and as recently as the 2021 playoffs. That's especially true with this Phoenix team that has so little margin for error with Skylar Diggins-Smith as the last member standing of their Big Three.
For any chance of pulling off the improbable, they'd need Diggins-Smith, Shey Peddy, Sophie Cunningham and Diamond DeShields to play some ridiculous basketball -- first this week to secure their postseason berth and then in the weeks beyond -- plus dig deep on the defensive end, where they've struggled much of the season; their defensive rating this summer is 103.8, 10th in the league.
Phoenix's playoff fate has huge implications for another team, too: The Chicago Sky own the Mercury's 2023 first-round pick. Yes, the defending champs, and one of the favorites to win it all this season, could end up in the lottery in 2023.
In Dallas, Ogunbowale is the franchise's star player, but the Wings have actually thrived in her absence: Three of their five consecutive wins -- including huge victories over the Sky and the Las Vegas Aces -- came without the former Notre Dame standout on the floor. The Wings also have a -2.6-point differential per 100 possessions in net rating with Ogunbowale on the floor versus on the bench, a far cry from the stats that teammates Allisha Gray (14.3) and newer starters Teaira McCowan (10.5) and Veronica Burton (9.3) boast.
The Wings are most likely to earn the sixth seed in the standings, which would set them up for a first-round matchup against the No. 3 seed -- which the Connecticut Sun have a 93% chance of earning, per ESPN's BPI.
Note that following victories from Las Vegas and Connecticut on Tuesday, the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics are locked in as a 4-5 first-round matchup, with the Storm better positioned to host as of now (81% per ESPN's BPI). Seattle owns the head-to-head tiebreaker in that series (2-1), which could pay dividends as the Mystics finish the regular season with the easier schedule (two games versus the last-place Indiana Fever, compared to Seattle's against the Minnesota Lynx and then Las Vegas).
Before the regular season wraps Sunday, here's what the rest of the landscape looks like as the postseason approaches, how the BPI sees it playing out and which games to keep an eye on that'll help decide the teams who'll earn the final two playoff spots.
Wednesday: New York at Dallas; Minnesota at Phoenix
The Lynx had quite a bout of bad luck to start the season, but things have recently started to go their way, putting them within reach of making the postseason despite occupying the bottom two spots in the standings for a long stretch of the season. It helps to have Napheesa Collier back, as she played 21 minutes in her season debut Sunday. Aerial Powers and Rachel Banham are both probable for Wednesday after dealing with knee issues, Powers' causing her to miss Sunday's game. The Lynx also already own the tiebreakers over all the other four teams in the playoff hunt, which could come in handy.
Meanwhile, the Mercury are expected to have Diggins-Smith back after she missed Saturday's game with a non-COVID illness, as she is not on their most recent injury report. Phoenix went 1-1 in its past two games without Taurasi, but have done poorly against the Lynx in 2022, losing all three of their previous matchups.
Friday: New York at Atlanta; Dallas at Phoenix
The upcoming pair of Liberty-Dream matchups have the potential to be intense battles, as both teams are still fighting for playoff berths, and there's a tiebreaker still up for grabs (currently, the season series is 1-1). The Dream are dealing with a slew of injuries at the worst time -- with multiple players out for the season and Tiffany Hayes (ankle) and Kristy Wallace (COVID-19 protocols) both sidelined in recent games. The Dream have fallen off as of late, winning just four games since the All-Star break and putting them in danger of missing the postseason despite being in the top eight in the standings for much of the season.
The Liberty are another team that showed promise back in June but have struggled with consistency and could end up missing the postseason for the fourth time in five years. Hurting New York most recently was failing to take advantage by suffering back-to-back losses against Phoenix (without Taurasi and Diggins-Smith) on Sunday and Dallas (without Sabally and Ogunbowale) on Tuesday. While Betnijah Laney is finally back from a knee injury, Natasha Howard has been nursing an ankle sprain since the weekend and is listed as questionable for Wednesday.
Sunday: Atlanta vs. New York; Dallas at Los Angeles
Things weren't necessarily going swimmingly for the Sparks beforehand, but they've nosedived ever since Liz Cambage took a buyout in late July and left the team, losing five consecutive games after her departure and six of their past seven, including Tuesday's loss to the Sun. It hasn't helped that Chiney Ogwumike missed three games with a face injury before returning Tuesday, while Chennedy Carter has effectively been removed from the rotation in recent games, what interim head coach Fred Williams called a "coach's decision" involving him, the team and Carter. Kristi Toliver (calf), who was a late arrival earlier in the season due to the NBA playoffs, also hasn't taken the court in August and has been limited to just 11 games this summer.
After a 97-71 beatdown Tuesday, the Sparks' playoff chances remain incredibly dim, sitting at 2.2%, according to ESPN's BPI.
More key stats in the playoff race
Per ESPN's BPI, these are the most likely first-round matchups in the WNBA playoffs:
Storm vs. Mystics: 100%
Sun vs. Wings: 91%
Sky vs. Mercury: 36%
Aces vs. Dream: 31%
Of the five teams in the hunt for a playoff berth, what chances do they have of securing one of the two remaining playoff spots (per BPI)?
New York: 26.4%