Mystics feel the ‘Sunday scaries’ in loss to Atlanta

Things went from bad to worse for Washington with an injury to Natasha Cloud

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Washington Mystics players Myisha Hines-Allen (2), Tina Charles (31) and Leilani Mitchell (right of Charles) react to an offensive foul call against Charles in a game against the Minnesota Lynx on Jun. 8, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

About 12 minutes into the Washington Mystics’ game against the Atlanta Dream on Sunday, things were looking good for the Mystics. Center Tina Charles, the WNBA’s leading scorer, had scored seven first-quarter points, including a 3-pointer off of a between-the-legs crossover dribble that Dream television analyst LaChina Robinson called “kind of nasty.” And forward Myisha Hines-Allen had just hit two 3-pointers to give the Mystics a 33-22 lead.

“She’s a bucket,” Robinson said of Hines-Allen, who by that time already had 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting from the field.

But the situation changed in a hurry as Atlanta’s defense started to ramp up the pressure. The Mystics had six turnovers in the second quarter—half their season average for an entire game—and saw their shooting percentage fall from 60 percent in the first quarter to 37 percent in the second.

By halftime, the Mystics had relinquished their entire double-digit lead and trailed 51-49, and the onslaught just kept coming. The final score: Atlanta 101, Washington 78.

A graph showing the Washington Mystics’ hot start and difficult finish against the Atlanta Dream on Jun. 13, 2021, as they went from up by 11 points to down by as many as 23. (Image credit: WNBA website)

After the game, the Mystics were in a hurry to leave the Gateway Center Arena—and not just because they had a tight window to catch their flight home. Head coach Mike Thibault and multiple players expressed displeasure with most facets of the team’s performance, from offense to defense to intangibles.

“Atlanta is a team that relies heavily on their aggressive defensive play and their pressure on the ball, and away from the ball making you feel uncomfortable, and we gave into that,” said forward Theresa Plaisance, who was a bright spot with 10 points and four rebounds off the bench. The Dream consistently trapped and double-teamed the Mystics’ top two scorers, Charles and guard Ariel Atkins, and dared the other Mystics to beat them.

The tactic paid off in more ways than one: Charles and Atkins finished with a combined 28 points, 15.5 below their average entering the game; the rest of the team couldn’t make up the difference; and the Dream got a lot of easy points off of Mystics turnovers. The Mystics finished the game with the unenviable combination of just 38 percent shooting from the field and a season-high 17 turnovers, which led to 27 points for Atlanta.

“Even if you turn the ball over, you hope you hold a team to about a basket every other turnover,” Thibault said. “They were scoring on almost every one of them.”

The confidence that the Dream got from their defense also seemed to help their shooting from behind the arc, as they made a season-high 13 of 29 attempts (45 percent) after making just 7 of 44 (16 percent) in their previous two games combined.

“They played with confidence,” Thibault said, “… and we had this look on our face, when we had a lead and gave it away in no time, of being—I don't even know the word. Panic’s not the right word, but [they] certainly sped us up a little bit.”

“They did a great job of speeding us up, and we weren't able to handle it,” added Hines-Allen, who finished with 16 points and six rebounds but also a team-high four turnovers. “So credit to them, but I think now we see, all right, we’ve got to play at our own pace and we have to dictate where we want to throw the ball. We can't have other teams forcing us into passes.”

All those turnovers made life difficult for the Mystics’ transition defense, but they also had issues containing the Dream in the half court. Thibault said the Mystics made mistakes guarding pick-and-rolls that not only led to Dream baskets, but also frustrated the Mystics enough to affect their play offensively. And despite an emphasis before the game on not fouling, the Mystics committed 19 fouls and let the Dream shoot 21 free throws, of which they made 16.

The Mystics’ struggles were surprising because they had seemingly turned a corner in their past three games, including a blowout win over a Los Angeles Sparks team that plays a similar small-ball style to Atlanta. Point guard Natasha Cloud has said multiple times that she believes that the Mystics can be “a scary team” once they find their stride, but Plaisance described their play on Sunday as “flat” and “passive.”

Thibault said before the game that it was difficult to simulate the Dream’s quickness, which may be unmatched by any other team. Or, as point guard Leilani Mitchell put it after Saturday’s practice, “LA was a good warm-up for us, but obviously Atlanta goes to a whole ‘nother level, just their speed and athleticism.”

Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud looks to inbound the ball during a game against the Los Angeles Sparks on Jun. 10, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

For the Mystics, the game against the Dream may have felt like a case of the “Sunday scaries,” a term that describes the anxiety and, yes, pressure that some people feel ahead of the workweek. And the nightmare went from bad to worse when the television broadcast reported in the second half that Cloud was icing her right hip flexor, an injury that had her listed as “probable” on the pregame injury report.

“She aggravated what she had already hurt,” Thibault confirmed postgame, without elaborating on how or exactly when that occurred. A Mystics spokesperson later told The Next that Cloud would be evaluated once the team returned to DC, and it is currently unknown how severe the injury is or how long she might be out.

If Cloud is not able to play this Thursday, that could make the rematch with Atlanta in DC an even taller task. Mitchell, a veteran point guard who had zero turnovers in 20 minutes on Sunday, would likely start in Cloud’s place, but combo guards such as Atkins, Shavonte Zellous and Kiara Leslie would also likely have to handle the ball more.

Both Plaisance and Hines-Allen said they were excited to have a chance at revenge so quickly after Sunday’s loss, though the Mystics have plenty of things to fix. Plaisance said that composure and avoiding turnovers will be the top areas of focus this week at practice and in the film room. And with two days of practice on the schedule before Thursday’s game, improvement is to be expected.

Quite frankly, improvement will also be demanded—by Thibault as well as by the players themselves. They recognize that they didn’t look like themselves on Sunday, and they have not been shy about holding their teammates accountable. Last Monday, Charles and Cloud called a players-only meeting where the team discussed its identity and every player named specific areas of the game where they thought the team needed to improve.

“It’s actually something that we should have done probably before the first game, just to make sure that we knew what everyone's individual goals were, what our goals are collectively as a team,” Charles said on Tuesday. “… I just wanted to make sure there was a sense of urgency because I'm someone who's very intense, and I want to make sure that … nobody’s feeling relaxed around me or anything. We should not be comfortable [after a 2-5 start]. This is still a season we can get.”

After Sunday’s loss in Atlanta, Charles—who joined the Mystics specifically to chase a championship—again took charge to demand better. “She’s definitely coming into her voice and speaking up and telling us, ‘All right, we’ve got to pick this up, we’ve got to find our identity,’” Hines-Allen said. “[There] was definitely an edge when she was talking to us in the locker room after this game.”

The Mystics will look to channel Charles’ edge and sense of urgency in the rematch with the Dream. If they do that, they could get back to the scary team Cloud has said they can be, rather than the “Sunday scaries” they experienced this weekend.