September 14, 2020 

The Washington Mystics are headed to the playoffs

Four straight wins while remaining true to who they are

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The Washington Mystics celebrate after defeating the Atlanta Dream on September 13, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Shortly after the Washington Mystics improbably clinched a playoff berth on Sunday, head coach Mike Thibault said that there was no “wild celebration” in the locker room. Instead, “it was a happiness: hug each other and be thankful for where we are.”

“Where we are” can be judged based on numbers: the Mystics won their last four games, and five of their last six, after winning just one game in a brutal month of August. Each of those wins was essential, as the Mystics finished with a 9-13 record, just a game ahead of Dallas for the final playoff spot.

In the past six games, the Mystics’ offense has been 7.3 points better per 100 possessions and the defense has been 6.0 points better per 100 possessions than in the team’s first 16 games. The result is that they are outscoring opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks third in the league and is a 180-degree turn from their first 16 games, when they were outscored by 5.5 points per 100 possessions.

“September’s been good to us so far,” point guard Leilani Mitchell said on Saturday after a 75-58 win over New York. “We’re playing together, we’re playing harder, and hopefully it continues.”

Yet, as Mitchell alluded to, the Mystics’ transformation from a team that couldn’t keep pace with playoff teams like Los Angeles and Minnesota in mid-August into one that avenged those losses with the season on the line goes far beyond the numbers, or even the Xs and Os. “When you look at the [Mystics’] playbook, not a lot has changed,” Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen said before her team’s 85-78 loss on Sunday. Instead, the intangibles have been crucial, and Thibault has been most pleased with his team’s grit, camaraderie, and perseverance during the winning streak.

“The work we’ve done in the last few weeks when most teams would’ve quit has paid off,” he said. “… It’s a great, great testament to how [the players have] hung in. It’s a wonderful feeling any time you win, but to do it how we’ve done [it] to get in, it’s a great feeling.”

Forward Emma Meesseman, last year’s WNBA Finals MVP, said that the Mystics had to start 2020 almost from square one because they had so many new players, and they had to continually reinvent themselves as players were injured throughout the season. “We found each other right in time, the way we wanted to play in defense, offense, movement,” she said. “So I’m happy with the last stretch that it was right in time; it [could] not be one game later. … It’s just something to be really, really proud of.”

In the Mystics’ final two wins against New York and Atlanta, it was Ariel Atkins, the team’s lone returning starter from 2019, who led the way. On Saturday, she had 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals, and on Sunday, she tied her career high with 26 points and added 5 assists and 2 steals. She shot 44% from the field over the weekend, sank a combined five 3-pointers, and made all nine of her free throws.

“She’s just not scared of the moment,” Thibault said on Sunday. A day earlier, he noted that Atkins “has always made those hustle plays,” such as steals or key rebounds, and praised her ability to knock down big shots. Atkins stopped multiple New York runs by making shots, and against Atlanta, she swished a mid-range shot with 1.5 seconds left in the first half and scored 10 points in the third quarter alone to keep the Mystics in control.

“In the right moments that we needed her to be aggressive, she was there,” Meesseman said.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins shoots the ball against the Atlanta Dream on September 13, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Perhaps the biggest areas of growth for Atkins this season, though, have been in her leadership and communication.

“I hear her all the time,” Thibault said proudly. “When she was a rookie [in 2018], she was playing with some really good veterans, and she was just trying to figure things out. Now I hear her as a leader, vocally on the court, calling things out, talking at timeouts, counseling a younger player on what we’re doing. That’s such a huge step in her growth that will be a huge benefit for her and for us for her career.”

Atkins has also grown into a vocal leader off the court, filling in for Natasha Cloud as the Mystics’ union representative and speaking for the team on national television when it decided not to play on August 26, days after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake. At the beginning of the season, Atkins spoke of the responsibility she felt during a season dedicated to social justice:

“I feel obligated because I do have a platform. … I’m not a very vocal person all the time. But when I do have the chance to speak, I’d like to make sure what comes out of my mouth does good to the world and gives justice to those who deserve justice.”

Atkins (center, wearing the letter “O” on her shirt) talks with ESPN’s Holly Rowe about the Mystics’ decision not to play on August 26, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Since they returned to the court on August 28, one way that Atkins and her teammates have done that is by coordinating with their opponents to take intentional shot clock violations at the beginning of each quarter, two per team. The lack of on-court action during those four 24-second periods gives the broadcasters time to encourage the audience to register to vote, cast a ballot, and fill out the 2020 Census.

“We’ve been trying to figure out different ways to do in-game things that will remind everyone not only what we’re playing for, but that this season is so much more than just basketball and that what we’re doing is going to be pushing forward the agenda of how to help our people and help our communities,” Atkins explained last week.

Through early September, every opponent had gladly participated in the shot clock violations, and Washington forward Myisha Hines-Allen said that it was exciting to pull other teams into the idea that she and her teammates had set in motion. However, this past weekend, both the New York and Atlanta players told the Mystics that they did not want to participate.

That didn’t faze the Mystics. As Mitchell explained, “It’s up to every team, but we know that we want to stick with it.” Without the other team’s participation, the Mystics decided to take a single violation to avoid giving their opponents multiple extra possessions, but even in two must-win games, they were willing to give their opponent an advantage in order to share a more important message.

New York head coach Walt Hopkins indicated that he was not involved in his team’s decision not to participate. “I obviously would always do something like that,” he said. So when he saw the Mystics take a shot clock violation anyway, he told his team to reciprocate immediately afterward. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing because I was really kind of caught off guard by the whole thing, which is a simple matter of communication,” he explained.

On the other hand, Atlanta guard-forward Betnijah Laney said that her team talked about the idea and “made a team decision … that we weren’t going to do it.” She did not give a reason for that decision, and Atkins said that the Atlanta players did not share their reasoning with the Mystics, either.

“If that’s what they feel comfortable with, that’s them,” Atkins said. “We’re us. We’re gonna continue to fight for what we believe in and doing [it] the best way that we know how. Taking a shot clock violation may seem minimal to some people, but … it’s important for us to keep pushing our voices and keep pushing the things that we want to be heard.”

As the Mystics prepare for their first-round playoff game against Phoenix on Tuesday, they will also discuss whether to continue the shot clock violations in the postseason. “That’s something that we have to talk about,” Atkins said. “We don’t do it without discussing it with the other team, just to respect the game and to respect everyone.” Notably, Phoenix was the opponent on August 28, the game in which the Mystics debuted this initiative, though that does not guarantee their participation going forward.

This WNBA season has been unlike any other, not only because of COVID-19 and the single site the league is playing at in Florida, but also because of the stressors the players have faced off the court as they push for social justice.

“It’s been a hard season,” Meesseman admitted. “I think maybe I underestimated the whole thing a little bit. … Not being able to go out and step away from basketball was really hard. … But I’m not gonna look back at it like it was a nightmare. I’m so happy I did it and I’m part of this team.”

Thanks to an eleventh-hour push, this team has at least one more game to play in 2020—and Thibault is not taking that for granted, no matter Tuesday’s result. “The expectations in DC are always to win,” he said on Saturday. “Clearly, this has been a trying summer for everybody, but the fact that we’re still in a position to do it is a little bit amazing and … a testament to the players hanging in. … We as a group have been in the center of a lot of things and they’ve kept their focus on both tasks, a social justice task and the basketball task.”

He added, “I’m proud of them for being able to do both, to continue to call attention to the things that are important to our team—like voting rights, voter suppression, census, police reform, all of those things—we’ve been able to do that and yet continue to play better basketball also.

“I’m just so proud of what we’ve done.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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