Can the Mystics do it again? This is the question that faces the Mystics as they head toward their final two games of the season, against the New York Liberty on Friday and against the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday.
Last year, the Mystics went 5 of 6 in their final stretch of games following a 1-12 stretch, and snagged the 8th and final spot in the WNBA playoffs. The Mystics played Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs in a single elimination game that ended with one of the best/most heartbreaking [depending on your allegiances] buzzer-beaters I’ve ever seen, a Shey Peddy-three with the clock expiring.
This year, despite a 12-18 record, the Mystics are currently 8th in the standings with two games to play. If the season ended right now, the Mystics would head to the playoffs for a single elimination game with (you guessed it) the Phoenix Mercury.
But it’s too early to bank on the Mystics making the playoffs. In fact, I probably should delete the entire above paragraph. My very superstitious Jewish grandmother would tell me to spit over my left shoulder three times to ward off any evil spirit that might take umbrage with my hubris for thinking about potential moments for revenge before the Mystics have qualified. Rest assured, Mystics fans, I have spat.
The best thing about where the Mystics sit right now is that they control their own fate. The Mystics have two more games this season — against the New York Liberty and the Minnesota Lynx. If the Mystics win, they’re in. The LA Sparks and the Liberty, who both sit behind the Mystics at 11-19 need the Mystics to lose at least one game in order to make it into the postseason. Meanwhile, if the Mystics beat the Liberty, it’s possible they’ll clinch their spot.
Thus, the Mystics’ game against the New York Liberty on Friday is perhaps the single most important game of their season. If the Mystics beat the Liberty, DC will knock NY out of contention. The Liberty have struggled recently, but at home at the Barclay Center, with the playoffs on the line, they’ll show up, guns blazing.
Here’s how the Mystics can win:
- Three Point Shooting: The Liberty and the Mystics attempt more three point shots than any other team in the league, and it’s not even close. It stands to figure that whichever team makes more 3 point field goals will probably win the game. The Liberty have a higher shooting percentage than the Mystics (36.2% to 32.7%), so if the Mystics can limit the Liberty’s chances, the Mystics will be in a better position to win. The Mystics held the Sky to 3-22 from three point range in their win on Sunday. They’ll have to do that again against the Liberty.
- Lock-down defense: Natasha Cloud has sneakily built a case for being one of the best defensive players in the league. She almost always draws the toughest defensive assignment against any opponent. When the Mystics faced the Chicago Sky on Sunday, Cloud guarded Kahleah Copper, the Sky’s leading scorer, and took her out of the game, allowing only 3 points. Cloud needs to be as successful defending New York’s leading scorer, Betnijah Laney, as she was Copper. But the Liberty have other scoring threats. Sami Whitcomb is having a career season and can go off for 30 points in a game. (She also nearly won the WNBA three point shooting contest at the All Star game.) Sabrina Ionescu scored 18 points in the Liberty’s most recent loss to the Dallas Wings and can score when her team needs her to. Natasha Howard is one of the quickest players cutting into the paint and can also knock down the three. Luckily, the Mystics have players who can step up and make big defensive stops. Against Chicago on Sunday, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had six steals. Shavonte Zellous is, according to her teammate Tina Charles, “relentless…on both sides of the court.” Theresa Plaisance is excellent at drawing a charge. If Ariel Atkins returns for Friday’s game after missing the last two after suffering a loss, the Mystics will regain one of the best on and off ball defenders in the league. And this point brings me to…
- The Return of Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen: Fans know better than to hope that Elena Delle Donne will be able to play on Friday and Sunday. (Holly Rowe reported that the Mystics will meet this week with EDD to determine if she’s able to travel and play on Friday.) But the return of Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen will add more scoring options, fierce defending, and a second inside option (in Myisha Hines-Allen, to go along with Tina Charles). The Mystics are a better and more complete team when both Atkins and Hines-Allen are on the floor.
- Tina Charles continues to do Tina Charles things: Tina Charles was recently named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week. On Sunday against the Sky, Tina Charles was unstoppable. She scored 31 points on 10 for 19 shooting, going 4 for 7 from three-point range. She also had 10 boards and a remarkable 5 assists. Charles doesn’t have to score 31 points against the Liberty, but if she scores in the single digits, as she did against Seattle, the Mystics simply won’t have enough offense to win. A lot of weight has been on Tina Charles’s powerful shoulders all season. That’s not changing this weekend.
The Mystics have all the reasons in the world not to be in the hunt. Their players have missed 91 total games because of illness and injury. Their franchise player, Elena Delle Donne, has been out all year. As of the writing of this piece, head coach Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in the WNBA, just entered Covid Protocols and will not be available to coach on Friday or Sunday. Instead, Assistant Coach Eric Thibault will be calling the shots on the sidelines. Still, even with the latest disruption to an already difficult and unpredictable season, rest assured that the Mystics will fight. “We show up and play hard every day,” Coach Mike Thibault said after the game on Sunday. Tina Charles added, “When we [are a] man down, we man up.”
Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
(Image Credit-Washington Mystics twitter)