Mercury up to the challenge against top seeded Las Vegas Aces in first round of playoffs

·5 min read
May 6, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona; USA; Mercury's head coach Vanessa Nygaard talks with Sophie Cunningham (9) before she comes to the court during the home opener against the Aces.
May 6, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona; USA; Mercury's head coach Vanessa Nygaard talks with Sophie Cunningham (9) before she comes to the court during the home opener against the Aces.

The Phoenix Mercury will take their gritty lineup into the postseason against the Las Vegas Aces Wednesday.

It’s hard to overlook how first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard persisted in unimaginable obstacles this season, including the detainment of star center Brittney Griner in Russia.

“Hopefully, BG is hearing this and maybe it’s bringing her a little light that her team is in the playoffs and definitely in her honor," Nygaard said on Sunday.

Griner’s absence all season forced the team to redesign its playing style. Tina Charles started off as center, but her time with the team was short-lived after she left the team through a contract divorce in late June.

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It took time for the team to adjust to its smaller lineup that emphasized the play of its star guards Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith. But with Brianna Turner moving from power forward to center and Sophie Cunningham shifting from small forward to power forward, the team started to find its bearings and make a strong case for the postseason.

The final stretch wasn’t easy, especially after losing Taurasi on Aug. 2 with a quad injury. The team’s roster was then diminished once again when Diggins-Smith missed the last four games of the season due to a non-COVID illness and personal reasons. Diggins-Smith was named to the All-WNBA team on Monday.

“I want to acknowledge her contribution to us getting here this season. We wouldn’t have made it without all the work that she’s put in, so thank you, Sky,” Mercury wing Diamond DeShields said.

The status of Taurasi and Diggins-Smith was unknown for the playoffs as of Tuesday.

The Mercury have faced the Aces without Diggins-Smith this season and lost by 20 points in Las Vegas.

Based on the recovery timeline Taurasi gave on Aug. 13, she is two weeks out from a full recovery from her injury.

Nygaard didn’t rule either out after Sunday’s season finale, and also mentioned a potential return of guard Kia Nurse. Nurse has missed the entire season due to an ACL injury suffered in last season’s playoffs.

“There’s a chance you can see a lot of people. We have Kia Nurse, Diana Taurasi, Skylar, you can see a lot of people. Not sure where that is right now, but we’re prepared with the group we have,” Nygaard said.

In the absence of both guards, the Mercury have gone 2-2 and pulled off big wins over the New York Liberty and Dallas Wings, two teams currently in the playoffs. In those wins, players like DeShields and Shey Peddy took on larger roles and helped the team find some of its best chemistry all season.

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Much has changed since the Mercury and the Aces last met up on May 21. The team hadn’t found its chemistry yet and had Cunningham, a potential candidate for most improved player, on the bench. Not to mention, supporting players like Jennie Simms, Yvonne Turner, and Reshanda Gray weren’t on the roster. With the help of Peddy and DeShields, Simms has tremendously improved and has averaged 13.0 points in the last two games.

Wednesday’s matchup between the eighth-seeded Mercury and the top-seeded Aces will begin at 7 p.m. on ESPN and will begin the best-of-three series that features two games in Las Vegas.

The Mercury aren’t giving much thought to the road situation. Even with a 4-14 record on the road this season, the Mercury don’t want the past weighing on the current situation.

“We’re undefeated on the road in the playoffs this year,” Nygaard said. “Those players who are getting the opportunity to play in this game and play in the playoffs, they’re excited and we’re happy to be in it.”

The Aces clinched the top seed on Sunday to finish their four-game winning streak that included wins over the Seattle Storm and Chicago Sky. A’ja Wilson was named player of the week for the Western Conference after averaging 20.3 points and 10.0 rebounds through three games.

Besides Wilson, the Aces are deep with talent, with Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, and Chelsea Gray all proven to be dangerous offensively. Las Vegas’ offense has averaged 90.4 points this season and has held opponents to 84.1. Against the Mercury this season, the Aces have averaged 97.3 points in comparison to 80.7 points from the Mercury.

A recent move that has paid off for the Aces was moving center Kiah Stokes into the starting lineup in the last four games. Stokes averaged 5.3 defensive rebounds in her four starts.

“They have been doing a little different in their rotation than they did previously but, myself and my assistant coaches are going to dive hard into Vegas,” Nygaard said. “We have already been doing the prep. We have been spending time and making sure we are ready in case of this scenario. We are excited.”

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Reach the reporter at jenna.ortiz@arizonarepublic.com or 602-647-4122. Follow her on Twitter @jennarortiz

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix Mercury vs. Las Vegas Aces 2022 WNBA playoffs series preview