August 10, 2020 

Washington Mystics show some growing pains in two weekend losses

The schedule this season forces the Mystics to fix things on the fly, without much practice time

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The New York Liberty’s Amanda Zahui B looks for her shot against the Washington Mystics’ Alaina Coates (left) and Shey Peddy (center) in a game on August 7, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Washington Mystics had a weekend to forget, dropping two games to non-playoff teams from a season ago and extending their losing streak to four games.

On Friday, the Mystics handed the New York Liberty their first win of the season, 74-66, in a game that head coach Mike Thibault called “one of the most embarrassing losses, if not the most embarrassing loss, since I’ve been in DC.” He continued, “Not because we lost the game, but because of our approach … It’s not the same team that showed up and played the first couple games.”

The team met on Saturday to “talk about what playing for the Mystics means” and rededicate themselves to “the things that are non-negotiable,” as Thibault put it. The players have also been getting texts from Mystics players who are sitting out this season, including point guard Natasha Cloud and center Tina Charles, trying to help them right the ship and encouraging them to stay positive.

The Mystics showed signs of progress in Sunday’s game against the Indiana Fever, including a fourth-quarter comeback attempt, but ultimately lost 91-84. Their downfall was a second quarter in which they were outscored by 16 points. “We got bogged down a bit, lost our energy, lost our intensity,” point guard Leilani Mitchell said. “But we’re not good enough of a team … [to] take those consecutive positions off, and unfortunately we did that, especially in the second quarter.”

The Mystics have fallen from first place in the league on August 1 to a tie for seventh just eight days later, struggling on both ends of the ball. They have scored 16.4 fewer points per game during the losing streak than during their 3-0 start, including nearly six fewer points per game in the paint and 10.5 fewer from behind the arc. They are shooting 9 percentage points worse from the field, 10 points worse from 3-point range, and 10 points worse from the free-throw line. 

Many shots hit the front rim on Sunday night, which could be a sign of fatigue, but on Friday night, the wounds were more self-inflicted. “Our whole team … settled for a lot of contested mid-range shots,” Thibault said postgame. “That’s not our game. We are a team that drives into the paint or drives and kicks to get threes.”

The Mystics are still getting balanced scoring despite the poor shooting, as Emma Meesseman led four players in double figures on Sunday with 19 points. However, they are simply not getting enough of it to overcome their defensive struggles. During the losing streak, the Mystics are surrendering 8.3 more points per 100 possessions and allowing opponents to shoot six percentage points better from the field. On the ESPN broadcast on Sunday night, Thibault was heard telling the players with two minutes left in the game, “If you get stops, we have a chance! We gotta get stops, somehow! Let’s go!”

On defense in particular, the Mystics seem to miss the players who are not with the team this season. In Thibault’s estimation, Cloud and center LaToya Sanders, who also opted out, were the team’s top individual defenders last season, and without Sanders, Charles, and injured forward Elena Delle Donne, the Mystics are limited in their ability to block shots. “We’re going to have to [play defense] with our feet and getting better body position,” Thibault said on Sunday. “… But we’re just not very big and, between keeping the ball in front of us and shutting down the lane, [defense] has been difficult for us.”

To an extent, the Mystics’ offensive and defensive struggles are mutually reinforcing and therefore difficult to disentangle: if the Mystics’ shots don’t fall, that can create transition opportunities for their opponent, and playing poor defense takes away chances for them to get easy transition baskets of their own. But at least one player thinks the root of the problem is on defense. At halftime of the Indiana game, Cloud made an appearance on ESPN and said, “We gotta get back to being that defensive, that gritty team, that tough team, because the last three games we’ve looked a little bit soft.”

Thibault likewise prioritized defense in his decision to start Kiara Leslie on Sunday in place of Aerial Powers, who strained her hamstring in Friday’s game. Through the first seven games, Powers is the team’s leading scorer with 16.3 points per game; Leslie is averaging just 4.6 points but was chosen for her strong on-ball defense and tasked with guarding Indiana’s leading scorer, guard Kelsey Mitchell. (Mitchell finished with 29 points, but Thibault said that Leslie did well on her early in the game before other players tried their hand at the assignment.)

The Washington Mystics’ Emma Meesseman (second from left) high-fives teammates Leilani Mitchell (left) and Myisha Hines-Allen (second from right) during a game against the New York Liberty on August 7, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The WNBA’s compressed schedule this season has been tough for the players physically, but it offers a silver lining in that the Mystics’ next chance at a win is usually only 48 hours away. “[Your] mental state changes the minute you win a game,” Thibault pointed out. He said that the players brought good energy into Sunday’s game, but players admitted postgame that the past week has been difficult.

“It’s been a struggle, obviously,” Leilani Mitchell said. “Nobody likes to fail and now we’ve lost all these games … We just need to remind ourselves that we have done it before and we can get ourselves out of this hole if we pay attention to the little things, bring the energy, and stay focused.”

Forward Myisha Hines-Allen, who scored just 11 points on Sunday after torching Indiana for 27 in the first meeting, added, “This game has highs and lows, and this is just a low moment right now. We’re waiting to get our groove back … [but] we’re fine. I don’t think we need to be panicking. … I just think it’s mental right now, to be honest.”

At the start of the season, Thibault insisted that this year’s Mystics were different from last year’s team and needed to develop their own identity. Through the first three games, it looked like the Mystics had skipped over any growing pains and picked up where they left off last season. But the last four games have shown that Thibault was right, and there are no quick fixes in a league as tough as the WNBA.

The Mystics are likely neither as good as they seemed in their first three games nor as bad as they looked in two losses this weekend. But the compressed schedule leaves little time for players to recover, let alone practice, between games. The challenge for the Mystics will be to get better and forge their identity on the fly, without the benefit of practice reps or do-overs. 

All statistics are courtesy of the WNBA stats page.

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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