July 31, 2020
What we learned about the Mystics from two huge wins
The Mystics just beat their last two WNBA finals opponents
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High fives all around for the Washington Mystics’ Leilani Mitchell (left), Aerial Powers (center), and Ariel Atkins (right) during a game against the Seattle Storm on July 30, 2020. Photo credit: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
The Washington Mystics faced a stiff test this week with consecutive games against their last two WNBA Finals opponents, the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm. Whether you want to call it acing the test or braving the elements, the Mystics did it, beating the Sun 94-89 and the Storm 89-71 to improve their record to 3-0.
The Mystics lost half of last year’s WNBA championship roster in the offseason: Kristi Toliver and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough changed teams, Kim Mestdagh was not re-signed, Elena Delle Donne is still recovering from a back injury, and Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders opted out of the 2020 season. (As if that wasn’t enough, new acquisition Tina Charles received a medical exemption and will not play this season.) In total, players who are not currently with the Mystics used 55% of the team’s offensive possessions and earned 13.5 win shares last season.
Despite all of those absences and the question marks they left on the roster, the Mystics entered the season confident. And so far this season, the Mystics have looked more like the 2019 team than anyone could’ve predicted entering the season.
Before Tuesday’s game against Connecticut, Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault was asked what he expected to learn about his team in the next two games.
“I don’t know if I’m afraid to find out,” he joked. “… We’re just going to find out against good teams how we match up, what we need to fix, maybe how we need to play maybe a little bit differently at one end of the floor or the other.”
As it turns out, not much has needed to change. The Mystics showed this week that they can win ugly, beating Connecticut in a game that had a total of 53 fouls, or pretty, beating Seattle by making 15 of 32 3-point attempts (47%) and recording an assist on 76% of their field goals. Here are four more things we learned over the last two games.
The Mystics can score
The Mystics averaged 91.5 points per game against their last two WNBA Finals opponents, and their three-game total of 284 points is the third-most to open a season in league history, according to the ESPN broadcast. The Mystics proved they can flat-out score, with four players scoring at least ten points and the team shooting at least 36% from behind the arc in every game this season.
On Saturday, Myisha Hines-Allen led the Mystics with a career-high 27 points. On Tuesday, Aerial Powers set her own career high with 27 points. And on Thursday against Seattle, it was the birthday girl, Ariel Atkins, who scored a game-high 22 points. Meanwhile, the player whom nearly everyone would’ve bet on to lead the team in scoring, 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, is averaging 12 points per game and has yet to top 14.
Part of the reason for that is because other teams have zeroed in on stopping Meesseman, often sending multiple defenders.
“As a general rule, they try to make life miserable for Emma,” Thibault said. “… She’s got to get used to the double teams … [but] this team is winning without her having her best games yet, so that’s probably a good sign in some ways.”
Meesseman is also a more than willing passer: she registered eight assists against Connecticut and four more against Seattle, building off of a 2019 season in which she set a franchise record with a 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. Between her passing and the team’s 3-point shooting, the Mystics have made teams pay for focusing too much on Meesseman. Thibault said, “I think we’re dangerous in the sense that, a) we can be underestimated [and] b) because we have balanced scoring, I don’t think teams can lock in on one player.”
The balanced scoring has also helped the team go on runs, just as it did a season ago. Against Connecticut, the Mystics had second-half runs of 17-4 and 12-2, and they opened a 15-4 lead against the Storm that kept them in the driver’s seat for the entire game. By the 6:47 mark of the second quarter, the Mystics led 35-20 and had hit nine 3-pointers—halfway to the franchise single-game record that they set last season.
Overall, Thibault said the offense is relatively similar to last season’s version: it still relies on players making reads in the halfcourt, shooting 3-pointers, and being opportunistic in transition. This year’s group is “trying hard to pick on mismatches,” whereas last year it was easier to find them all over the court, and it may end up shooting even more 3-pointers than the 2019 team, which set a WNBA record for 3-point attempts in a season.
“We’re trying to do the same things,” Thibault explained, “… [but] we’ve changed some plays from a year ago to fit what we have this year.”
Powers added, “The most similar thing to me [from this year to last year] would be the way we move the ball. Everybody was touching the ball [on Saturday], and that’s kind of Mystics basketball, right? Swing the ball, don’t let it be on one side of the floor for too long, make the defense work. … Everybody can score, but if we put each other in better positions, we have a better percentage of getting that possession right.”
The chemistry has developed faster than anticipated
The Mystics had just nine turnovers against Seattle and are averaging 12.7 per game through their first three games, not far off their league-leading 11.8 in 2019. They also rank third in the league with 20.0 assists per game, and their communication on both ends of the court has been consistently improving.
Asked if she expected the team to develop such strong chemistry so quickly, Meesseman said, “I’ll be honest: I’m really surprised because in practice, when we play[ed] five-on-five … we were kind of struggling sometimes and then we were thinking, ‘How are we gonna do this against the other teams?’ And then we come out here and, I don’t know, we just are really one team, and it’s so much fun to play with this team.”
Powers said on Tuesday that the unique circumstances of this season, with all 12 teams staying at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, have helped the Mystics gel. From pizza parties to TikTok dances to throwing a football around outside, “we’re all around each other almost 24-7,” she said. “… We’re all texting, ‘Hey, what time we going to eat,’ ‘What time we gonna do this,’ ‘Let’s hang out,’ and that chemistry shows on the court. So now if you have chemistry outside the court, when I’m talking to you as a teammate, you might not feel so [much] like I’m talking to you aggressive[ly], or you take criticism a little bit better.”
The team can close out games
Last year, the Mystics made more WNBA history with 16 wins by at least 15 points and eight wins by at least 25 points. While that level of dominance got the Mystics the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, it also led some observers to question whether the Mystics would be able to finish close games in the playoffs. (Answer: yes.)
In Saturday’s season-opening win over Indiana, the 2020 Mystics raised similar questions when they entered the fourth quarter leading 92-56 but scored just nine points in the final ten minutes. (They still won by 25 points.) However, they closed out a tight game against Connecticut on Tuesday, staying poised even when Connecticut rallied to make it a two-point game with 1:39 remaining. And on Thursday, they kept their foot on the gas against Seattle despite a huge early lead. The Storm got as close as 12 points in the second half, but Atkins swung the momentum back to the Mystics with a four-point play midway through the fourth quarter.
Storm center Mercedes Russell said postgame, “It seemed like even when we put together two or three baskets in a row, they would come down and hit a three on us and kill our run. It seemed like we could never go on a really long run where we got multiple stops in a row.” Teammate Breanna Stewart added that the Storm players pride themselves on “knowing that our run is going to come at some point … [but] today it didn’t.”
The Mystics have extra motivation all season long
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced this season to be played without fans, which creates quite a contrast with Washington’s raucous, often sold-out Entertainment and Sports Arena. “It forces us to bring our own energy,” Atkins said.
“But we already have the motivation and energy we need. This year is about the #SayHerName campaign, so I’m just being honest here: we have all the energy and the motivation we need to put our best foot forward every game.”
The #SayHerName campaign seeks to raise awareness of Black women and girls who have been victims of police violence, including Breonna Taylor, whose name is on the back of every player’s jersey this season. “We understand that this game is not just about us,” Atkins continued. “So … we need to give the best showing that we possibly can as a team, because people are watching us. And when they see us, they see Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of our jerseys.”
Throughout the week, Thibault insisted that the games against Connecticut and Seattle shouldn’t be viewed as WNBA Finals rematches. “The rematches have nothing to do with it,” he said on Tuesday. “… We have totally discounted that in all of our preparation.”
Nevertheless, the games against the Mystics’ stiffest challengers from seasons past were important early tests for this year’s young squad. Midway through the Seattle game, ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco asked his broadcast partner, Rebecca Lobo, whether she had changed her mind about the Mystics’ potential this season after seeing them play.
“Oh, certainly,” Lobo replied. “I had no idea what it was going to look like coming in because [they have] so many new pieces. I didn’t know Myisha Hines-Allen was capable of doing what she’s been doing or that Aerial Powers would make the leap she has made or that their offense would look as fluid as it has. I certainly have a higher level of belief in Washington than I did before the season started.”
Three games in, the Mystics have made their statement. As Hines-Allen put it, “We played in the Finals. So [we] want to show people that it’s not a fluke. Even though we are missing four players … we’re still a great team. We’re going to compete; we’re trying to compete again to win another championship.”
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 and Power Plays.