July 29, 2022
Are the Washington Mystics ready for the playoffs?
Currently tied for fourth, the Mystics have a big opportunity this week to improve their playoff seed — and answer some lingering questions
The Washington Mystics took three days off after beating New York on July 21, and the break seems to have come at the right time. “We needed that break, probably,” center/forward Shakira Austin told reporters on Tuesday. Head coach and general manager Mike Thibault noticed that the team had “a fresh bounce” in its step when practice resumed this week.
Mentally, too, a switch flipped after the break, with eight games remaining and the playoffs looming.
“We’ve all been preaching, ‘This is playoff basketball now. This is playoff atmosphere when we go to away games, when we play [at] home,’” forward Myisha Hines-Allen told reporters on Tuesday. “So yeah, it’s definitely starting to feel like playoff basketball.”
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After an 87-77 road win over the Dallas Wings on Thursday, the Mystics have an 18-11 record and are tied with the Seattle Storm for fourth in the standings, 3.5 games behind the first-place Chicago Sky. They have done it on the strength of their defense, which is allowing a league-best 94.4 points per 100 possessions. Four Mystics players rank in the top eight leaguewide in defensive rating and defensive win shares per game (minimum 10 games played), and the starting perimeter trio of Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark in particular has given opponents fits.
The Mystics also have a huge opportunity to move up in the standings over the next week with two home games against Seattle, a home game against the second-place Las Vegas Aces and a game at Chicago. And the difference between fourth and fifth is huge because the top four teams have home-court advantage in the first round of the eight-team playoffs.
What that means is, if Washington and Seattle finish fourth and fifth, respectively, Washington would host Seattle for the first two games of a best-of-three first-round series. Flip those seeds and the Mystics would start the playoffs with a cross-country flight and could be eliminated without ever playing at home.
“Every team we play for the next … six games … would be in the playoffs if they started today,” Thibault said on Tuesday, before the Dallas game. “So there’s a lot for those teams to play for and a lot for us to play for, trying to move up.”
Thibault’s approach for the rest of the season is that every player needs to improve by one or two possessions per half, not by leaps and bounds. “This is not the time of year for anybody to be doing anything radically different,” he said. He and his team used their practice time this week to fine-tune their brand of basketball, from tightening up their transition defense and defensive communication to refining their offensive sets.
“Having practice time makes us better,” Cloud said after the Dallas game, reflecting on a schedule that saw the Mystics play the most games of any team before the All-Star break in early July. “When we’re playing every two days, you can’t get time to practice and break things down. So this week with days off, we were able to … kind of pick apart what mistakes we’ve been making over the last few weeks and then applying them forward.”
As the Mystics get closer to clinching a playoff berth, one thing they are still seeking is consistency, both from game to game and within a game. Their current three-game winning streak is tied for their longest of the season, and they have weathered two separate stretches of losing four out of six games. In a loss at Connecticut on July 3, the Mystics’ offense rolled in the first half, building a 17-point lead on the strength of 56.3% shooting, but it managed just 17 second-half points on 25.9% shooting.
Even in Thursday’s game, the Mystics built a 20-point halftime lead but let Dallas get as close as nine in the fourth quarter. This time, defensive rebounding, turnovers and fouls were the culprits. “[I] was pleasantly surprised that we got off to such a good roll, but I was concerned at halftime, even with the lead, of some of the little things that we were doing wrong, and it came back to haunt us a little bit … It just felt kind of funky,” Thibault said afterward. “So, I mean, we survived it and it’s a really, really good road win, but it just had a weird feeling.”
Those first-half performances are not complete outliers, as the Mystics have generally played better on both ends of the court in first halves this season. They outscored opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in the first half, which has translated to a 5.1-point edge on the scoreboard. After that, on average, the Mystics play opponents to a draw, with both their offense and defense regressing from their first-half levels.
|Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating||Point Differential Per Game|
|Full Game (including overtimes)||99.9||94.4||5.6||4.8|
The difference in defensive rating from half to half is minimal in a practical sense, as the Mystics have the best first-half defense and the second-best second-half defense in the WNBA. But its offensive rating in first halves ranks fourth in the league, whereas its offensive rating in second halves ranks tenth.
Most concerningly, the Mystics rank last in the WNBA in offensive rating during “clutch” moments, which are defined as when the score is within five points in the last five minutes of games. Their effective field goal percentage in clutch moments is a league-worst 33.3%, down from 49.7% overall. It’s a small sample size, as the Mystics have played just 48 clutch minutes in 11 games this season, but it is something to watch for as the team enters a pivotal stretch of the season.
Thibault said before the Dallas game that he believes his offense is better than what the statistics have shown. In many cases, that could be unfounded optimism, but in this instance, he is probably right. Elena Delle Donne, the two-time WNBA MVP who has missed 10 games this season as the Mystics manage her return from two back surgeries, cures a lot of ills and is expected to be available for every playoff game. She is trending in the right direction, both missing fewer games and increasing her scoring as the season progresses. With her on the court this season, the Mystics have outscored teams by 10.7 points per 100 possessions, the largest margin of any Mystics player.
The Mystics’ bench is also rounding into form, led by WNBA Sixth Player of the Year candidate Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Hines-Allen, an All-WNBA player in 2020. Both players struggled with their shot early in the season but are now impacting the game on both ends. Walker-Kimbrough is averaging 7.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 steals in 20.5 minutes per game this season, while Hines-Allen is contributing 8.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 19.4 minutes per game.
Along with Walker-Kimbrough and Hines-Allen, center Elizabeth Williams and point guard Rui Machida get regular minutes off the bench, and forward Tianna Hawkins generally plays when Delle Donne rests. Through June 30, the Mystics’ reserves were outscored by 0.2 points per 100 possessions, but since July 1, they have clamped down defensively and outscored opponents by a league-high 7.5 points per 100 possessions.
“You can see it throughout the league when teams are struggling and their bench isn’t playing well,” Thibault said. “It puts a huge load minutes-wise and production-wise on starters. And luckily, we’re getting pretty good performances right now.”
The Mystics will continue to try to improve incrementally over the next few weeks and put themselves in the best position possible entering the playoffs. From there, they firmly believe that they will be in the mix for a championship, even if public attention is more focused on teams such as Chicago, Las Vegas and Connecticut.
“This is how we want to play. We’re a championship team,” Cloud said after the Dallas game. “We have all the pieces in our locker room. It’s just putting it together.”
“I think that, when you can put an Elena Delle Donne and an Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark and Natasha Cloud out there every night, then you have a chance as much as anybody,” Thibault concurred before the game. “I think it’s really wide open going into the playoffs, that we have as big a chance as anybody to get on a roll at the right time.”
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.