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End of WNBA regular season sees Sam Thomas’ team in the playoffs at the expense of Aari McDonald’s team

Chicago Sky v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

On the last day of the WNBA regular season, the Atlanta Dream and former Arizona Wildcat star Aari McDonald needed two things to happen if they were going to advance to the playoffs. They needed to win and they needed the Phoenix Mercury and fellow former Arizona star Sam Thomas to lose.

The Mercury obliged with a 15-point loss to the defending champion Chicago Sky, but the Dream could not take care of their side of the equation. McDonald and her teammates lost their second straight game to the New York Liberty, falling just four points short of the playoffs. The Dream finished the season on a four-game skid and 2-8 over their final 10. That extended their absence from the playoffs to four years.

Despite being without Diana Taurasi, the Mercury went 2-2 over the final four games. Last year’s runners-up extend their playoff appearance streak to 10 straight seasons and 14 of the last 16. They are hoping for their fourth title, but an injured Taurasi and an intermittently absent Skylar Diggins-Smith could make that difficult.

The team is also still missing Kia Nurse (injury) and Brittney Griner (in prison in Russia). Both have been gone all season.

While Atlanta didn’t make it back to the playoffs, both McDonald and her team made huge strides this season. In what was a far more settled season for the organization as a whole, the former Wildcat saw her stats improve across the board. A quick look at Her Hoop Stats shows a player who really found her way under her new coach and with a largely new group of players.

While last year, one of the three head coaches she played under claimed he “forgot” to put her in the game at least once, this season’s head coach Tanisha Wright had McDonald in every one of the 36 contests. McDonald’s minutes per game increased, as well. She saw the floor an average of 24.3 minutes per game compared to 16.4 MPG last season.

The increased time on the floor led to the expected increase in points per game. McDonald improved from 6.3 PPG her rookie season to 11.1 PPG this season.

It wasn’t just about the points, either. She was also considerably more accurate. McDonald shot just 32.2 percent from the floor last year. That jumped to 41.1 percent in her second season. From 3-point distance, she went from 30.8 percent in 2021 to 33.8 percent in 2022.

The other parts of McDonald’s game also improved. She went from 1.6 rebounds per game to 2.3 RPG. Her assists improved from 2.0 to 2.6 per game. Her steals almost doubled, going from 0.8 to 1.4 per game.

From a pure counting perspective, the only criticism of her play this season would probably be her turnovers. She increased those from 1.2 to 2.2 from her rookie to sophomore season.

Now, McDonald must decide if she’s going to let Adia Barnes talk her into returning to Tucson in the offseason or give overseas basketball another chance.

For Thomas, there’s no choice to be made. Although Thomas didn’t play much as a rookie, she’s coming off an eight-day period in which she saw the court far more than her season averages.

With Taurasi injured and Diggins-Smith out for part of that time with an undisclosed illness, Thomas played over 11 minutes on both Aug. 6 and in the final game on Aug. 14. She averaged 6.8 MPG in the final four games, up from her season average of 4.9 MPG. In the last game of the season, Thomas went 2-4 from the floor for six points. She also had an assist in her 11:20 on the court.

Now, Thomas will get to experience the energy of playoff basketball when the Mercury travel to Las Vegas to face the Aces. The first two games will be played in Vegas. If necessary, the third will be played in Phoenix.