Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi (3) is defended by Indiana Fever’s Briann January (20) during a first round WNBA playoff game on Wednesday.
Phoenix Mercury's Diana Taurasi (3) is defended by Indiana Fever's Briann January (20) during a first round WNBA playoff game on Wednesday. (AP)

The new WNBA playoff format began with a protest and ended with Phoenix and Atlanta advancing.

It also produced the final game of Tamika Catchings' illustrious career when the Fever lost to the eighth-seeded Mercury 89-78 on Wednesday night.

Even though she lost, Catchings was proud of her teammates and the stand they took before the game when the entire squad knelt during the national anthem, locking arms and lowering heads in a show of unity. Players in several sports are protesting social injustice, racial oppression and police brutality in the United States.

"This game of basketball is important for a lot of reasons," Catchings said. "One of them is bringing people together. Even uniting people. Well, we thought it was important to have a voice about something greater than basketball. But the good thing is, we were together. (The gesture) was something that was very impromptu, but I am very proud of our team — as people — to be able to stand together for something we believed in."

Two members of the Mercury joined the Fever's protest, as Mistie Bass and Kelsey Bone also took a knee. There wasn't much reaction from the crowd.

The national anthem kneel-down started in San Francisco with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and has spread to other teams and leagues. This was the first time an entire professional team took a knee.


WNBA President Lisa Borders backed the players' pregame demonstration.

"I support our players expressing their views on important social issues," she said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. "Standing for an anthem is a sign of respect and a demonstration of unity across many cultures throughout the world. The call to action is for all of us to invest time and resources to help rebuild and strengthen our communities. And we have been actively working with the players on this next impactful effort."

This wasn't the first time that Indiana had been involved in a protest this year. The Fever were one of a few WNBA teams to wear shirts in pregame warmups during July in support of the Black Lives Matters movement. Indiana was initially fined by the league, along with New York and Phoenix, before that penalty was later rescinded.

"Something like this creates conversation, and that's how we create change," Fever coach Stephanie White said. "We don't create change by seeing it on the news and waiting until next time. People who have the platforms have the ability to affect change, and I'm proud of our group for using the platform in a respectful manner."

The Mercury advanced to face New York on Saturday by winning the single-elimination game.

In the other first-round contest, Angel McCoughtry scored 37 points to lift the Dream to a 94-85 win over the Seattle Storm.

The Dream will head to Chicago to play the Sky on Sunday. They will have Tiffany Hayes back for that game. She was suspended for the Storm game after accruing a seventh technical foul in the regular-season finale.

Here are a few other takeaways from Wednesday:

POSITIVE METRICS: The league drew its highest attendance since 2011 with a 4.6 percent increase over last season. Fans also tuned in to watch games on ESPN, which saw an 11 percent increase in viewership, or on the league pass where subscriptions increased 24 percent from last year. Merchandise sales were up 30 percent over last year at the online WNBA store.

DIANA FROM DEEP: Diana Taurasi set the postseason record for 3-pointers in a career. She made her 113th, pushing her past Becky Hammon for the most in WNBA playoff history. Taurasi finished the game with three 3-pointers.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Elizabeth Williams won the league's most improved player award, receiving the trophy before her team's game. Williams started all 34 games for the Dream, leading the team in rebounding and blocks and ranking third in scoring.