The status of All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith remains uncertain as the Phoenix Mercury continue to battle for one of the last two WNBA playoff spots with two games remaining in the regular season.
Diggins-Smith, the team's leader in scoring and assists this season, did not play in Saturday's victory over New York or Wednesday's loss to Minnesota. She was listed as out with a non-COVID illness for the first game and out for personal reasons for the second.
The Mercury (14-20) are tied with Atlanta, Minnesota and New York, while Los Angeles (13-21) is also in the playoff race heading into Thursday's games. The only team that already has been eliminated from the postseason is Indiana.
Phoenix's remaining games are both at home, against Dallas (Friday) and Chicago (Sunday), which beat the Mercury in the WNBA Finals last year.
The Mercury announced Monday that veteran guard Diana Taurasi would miss the rest of the regular season with a quad strain. The team said her status for the playoffs would be updated if the Mercury make the postseason.
Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard didn't indicate whether she expected Diggins-Smith to play again for the Mercury. According to salary-cap information provided by Her Hoops Stats, Diggins-Smith is signed with Phoenix through next season and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
"We found out before the game," Nygaard said of Diggins-Smith missing the latest game. "We have gone through this earlier on Saturday. We're just one day at a time moving forward. We've seen everything this year, so whatever gets thrown at us, we're ready to just lace them up and go.
"It's such an honor and a privilege to play this game and we're so blessed every day that we get to go out and play in front of our great fans. So whoever we have available is going to come out and battle for our team. We still have fight, and we're going to be ready to go. That's what our fans deserve."
It's been a very challenging season for the Mercury and the first-year WNBA head coach. Nygaard replaced current New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who was let go by Phoenix after eight seasons while leading the Mercury to the 2014 WNBA title and the WNBA Finals last season.
Star center Brittney Griner was detained in Russia in February on drug charges when she returned to that country to finish her overseas season. Last week, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia, while the U.S. is still working to get her home in a prisoner exchange.
Diggins-Smith last played in a loss at Connecticut on Aug. 4, after Griner had been sentenced earlier that day.
"This is a human being and our real-life friend and real-life sister," a distraught Diggins-Smith, who watched the sentencing along with her teammates, said after that game. "I don't expect everybody to give a damn. But we really do.
"And we come out here and we're still supposed to play this [expletive] game. Nobody wanted to even play today. How are you supposed to approach the game with a clear mind, and the whole group is crying before the game? Because you try to honor her and you try to come out and still play hard for her."
In Phoenix's fourth game of this season, May 17 at Las Vegas, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi got into an altercation on the bench and had to be separated by teammates.
Then Taurasi didn't make July's All-Star Game, while Diggins-Smith did. In remarks to the media, Nygaard praised Diggins-Smith's selection, but also said it couldn't really be an All-Star Game without Taurasi.
On July 1, Diggins-Smith sent out a tweet with the clip of Nygaard saying that, and included a clown emoji that appeared to be directed at the coach.
The Mercury also had a contract divorce in late June from center Tina Charles, a former MVP who came to the team this year as free agent. Charles then signed with rival Seattle.
In the loss Wednesday, the Mercury were led by Sophie Cunningham (24 points), Shey Peddy (21) and Megan Gustafson (15). Those were career highs for both Peddy and Gustafson. With so many of the Mercury's expected starters for this season not playing at all, gone from the team or currently sidelined, Phoenix has had to depend on other players to fill bigger roles.
"I'm a strong believer that whatever adversity is thrown at me as a person, as a coach in my development, it's all for me," Nygaard said. "This is something that's going to help me and make me personally better. I believe that for our team, too. Challenges and things that come to us forces us to try new things.
"I'm extremely proud to have coached this group tonight. That group that's in the locker room, they are a tough group and they are so resilient. I don't think anyone can imagine some of the challenges they've faced, but they've never quit. They've never given up."