August 2, 2020 

Washington Mystics regroup after first loss

The Chicago Sky beat the Mystics at their own game with 3-point shooting and balanced offense

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Washington Mystics guard/forward Aerial Powers elevates for the layup in a game against the Chicago Sky on August 1, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the Washington Mystics’ 88-86 loss to the Chicago Sky on Saturday, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault acknowledged that his team has a target on its back after a 3-0 start.

“Everybody’s here,” he said, referring to the fact that all 12 WNBA teams are playing this season at a single site in Florida. “You see other people, other coaches say something or other players say something to your players. And so I think you feel … a little bit more of the focus on you.”

At the same time, Thibault said that the Mystics still feel pressure to show that “it’s not an accident that we’re playing good basketball”—and that pressure will likely drive them forward after their first loss of the season.

Postgame, the players lamented that they did not play to their usual standard, and Thibault was dismayed about his team committing live-ball turnovers and giving up leads. (The game featured ten ties and eight lead changes, and the Mystics’ largest lead was nine points.) “We just didn’t play Mystics basketball today for the whole game. I think that’s what it boils down to,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen said.

The Sky, on the other hand, were effective doing many of the things that the Mystics patented en route to the 2019 championship. In other words, the Sky out-Mystics-ed the Mystics—just look at how the two teams stacked up in several statistical categories that are Mystics trademarks:

3-point shooting: The 2019 Mystics set all-time WNBA records for 3-pointers made and attempted per game, with 9.3 makes on 25.4 attempts. On Saturday, the Mystics shot 8-for-22 (36%) from behind the arc, whereas Chicago made 12 of 25 attempts (48%). In the fourth quarter, the Mystics attempted just four 3-pointers, and guard Ariel Atkins suggested that they were looking for a game-tying 2-pointer rather than a game-winning triple on their final offensive possession.

Ball movement: The Mystics recorded 20 assists to the Sky’s 25, and guard/forward Aerial Powers said, “We weren’t moving the ball as well as Mystics fans normally see us move the ball.” Chicago, led by All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot, registered 25 assists, and four different players had at least four assists. Last season, the Mystics set the WNBA single-season record for assists per game with 21.9, narrowly topping the Sky’s 21.2 per game in 2018. 

Balanced scoring: Last season, five Mystics players averaged at least 10 points per game and seven averaged at least nine points. This year’s Mystics aren’t as deep, but they have had four double-figure scorers in every game this season. On Saturday, Atkins (24 points) led the way for the second straight game, with Powers (20), Hines-Allen (13), and Mitchell (12) rounding out the team’s top scorers. However, the Sky one-upped the Mystics with five double-figure scorers, led by Cheyenne Parker and Gabby Williams with 16 points apiece.

Mystics forward Emma Meesseman wasn’t far off from double figures, scoring 9 points, so this comparison may feel like splitting hairs, but combined with the next item on the list, it spelled trouble for the Mystics.

Bench production: Last season, the three bench players in the WNBA who saw regular minutes and produced the most win shares per minute were all Mystics: Meesseman, Powers, and Tianna Hawkins. Hawkins missed her third straight game on Saturday with a back injury, and the Mystics’ bench produced just eight points, four rebounds, and four assists. In contrast, Williams led the way for the Sky bench, which totaled 28 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists. Every bench player for the Sky had a positive plus-minus, which indicates that the Sky outscored the Mystics when that player was on the court. The Mystics’ reserves each had negative plus-minuses.

Even as the Mystics struggled on Saturday, they held the Sky to just four fast-break points and were one shot away from a 4-0 start to the season. Fittingly, if the Mystics had won, the two players who Mystics play-by-play announcer Meghan McPeak nicknamed the “aerial assault”—Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers—would have been big reasons why the Sky fell. Atkins made seven of her nine shot attempts and all six of her free throws, and she combined with Powers for 44 points, eight rebounds, five steals, and four assists.

“I [was] getting to my spots on the court,” Powers said of her 20-point performance. She can both shoot 3-pointers and drive to the rim, but she did most of her work on the inside against the Sky, shooting seven free throws and playing, in her words, some “bully ball” in the paint. Meanwhile, Atkins made four of six 3-point attempts, bringing her total to nine over her past two games.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (right) looks to pass the ball against Chicago Sky guard Allie Quigley in a game on August 1, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

However, neither Powers nor Atkins was satisfied with the team’s performance. At times, players looked visibly tired in what was their fourth game in eight days, and the Mystics had several possessions in which they did not catch the ball cleanly or miscommunicated on offense. “I don’t think we locked in for 40 minutes,” Atkins said.

Powers echoed that, adding that the loss will fuel the Mystics going forward. “We didn’t start off with the energy we usually do,” she said. “… That’s for us to figure out, us to refocus. I don’t think Chicago beat us at all. I think we beat ourselves. …

“I’m not gonna say, sit here and say we’re tired. Everybody’s tired. … But we’re gonna bring in the energy next game. So, I mean, we’ve heard Chicago celebrating and I think that’s kind of what we needed, kind of a slap in the face. They should be celebrating beating us. We’re a really good team, and, like I said, we beat ourselves.”

Last season, an early loss to Seattle provided the spark the Mystics needed to lock in during the regular season. The Mystics held a team meeting to regroup and promptly went on a five-game winning streak that set the stage for their dominance the rest of the way.

This year’s roster is a much different group from a season ago, but with Thibault still at the helm and returners like Atkins and Powers leading the way, it would not be surprising to see this year’s team find similar motivation from Saturday’s loss.

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 and FanSided.

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