August 26, 2023
How the Washington Mystics are evolving late in the season as stars get healthy
Mystics race to recapture on-court chemistry as clock ticks down to playoffs
WASHINGTON — When the Washington Mystics played the Indiana Fever on Aug. 18, it was the first game in which Mystics stars Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin were all available since June 25. For head coach Eric Thibault, it felt like a new beginning in the 31st game of the season.
“It’s like a weird mix of preseason … and season opener and weirdly also like playoff vibes because we know it’s the stretch run of the season,” he told reporters before the game. “So it’s a strange mix.”
At this point in the season, many teams are jockeying for playoff berths and trying to reach an extra gear. The Mystics, in a tie for seventh place, are striving for that, too, but they’re also rebuilding themselves as they get key players back from injury. They’re adjusting their offensive and defensive schemes and trying to rediscover their on-court chemistry, all while facing one of the WNBA’s toughest remaining schedules, per Massey Ratings.
Forward Tianna Hawkins laid out how the Mystics have had to review the basics at a time when other teams are adding new wrinkles.
“In practice the other day, we got back to our offense [and] went over our defensive principles,” she told reporters on Aug. 18. “It’s just going back to that baseline from back in training camp, just falling back on those principles and stuff. And … getting people back and integrated on the offensive end and just moving the ball some, just to make sure everybody gets their feel.”
The injury dominoes began to fall on June 20, when reserve guard Kristi Toliver was shut down with plantar fasciitis in her foot. She still has not returned, but she played five-on-five for the first time in Friday’s practice, according to Thibault.
Five days later, Austin strained her hip against the New York Liberty. Delle Donne then sprained her ankle twice, on June 30 and July 9, and Atkins followed with an ankle sprain on July 11.
It’s hard to overstate how much the four players’ absences have affected the Mystics. Atkins and Delle Donne are Olympians, Toliver is a two-time WNBA champion, and Austin was on the gold-medal-winning USA team for last fall’s World Cup. Combined, they’re averaging 44.5 points per game this year, but they have missed an average of 17.5 games — more than half the season.
As a result, the Mystics have lost more win shares due to injury (8.3 and counting) than any other team. While all four players were out, the Mystics had to rely heavily on the two remaining starters, guards Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes, and fill out their roster with three players on hardship contracts.
Austin returned on Aug. 13, followed by Delle Donne and Atkins on Aug. 18. But Delle Donne only played two quarters before aggravating a hip issue, which has caused her to miss the last two games. Austin and Atkins have played three games each but are on minutes restrictions, and Austin will sit out some games to avoid overtaxing her. Both Atkins and Austin are still finding their way on the court, and their teammates are getting used to having them back, too.
“We’re happy as hell to just have them back, have them healthier,” Sykes said of all three returners on Aug. 18. “[But] it’s still a journey. It’s still a process with them getting back. They can’t just go out and play 40 minutes, so just giving them grace and allowing [them] to feel it out.”
Overall, Atkins is averaging 8.7 points in 16.8 minutes per game since returning, while Austin is averaging 7.7 points in 16.1 minutes. But they are each averaging less than 2.5 minutes of game action before they get substituted, based on WNBA rotation data. Short stints like that can make it harder for players to find their rhythm.
That’s been frustrating for Thibault, who’d play the returners more if he could. It’s also foreign to Atkins, who averaged at least 30 minutes per game in the previous three seasons. She told NBC Sports Washington recently that she’s trying to ignore the clock and get used to shorter bursts.
In the four-point win over Indiana on Aug. 18, Atkins, Austin and Delle Donne each scored six points and shot a combined 6-for-19 from the field. Thibault called their performances a “mixed bag, kind of to be expected,” as they tried to shake off the rust and find a flow despite each playing less than 16 minutes. Austin, in her second game back, said her offense wasn’t where she wanted it to be, but she thought her lateral movement and reactions on defense had improved from her debut.
“There’s nothing like game rhythm and game timing … when you have to read a live defense,” Thibault said two days later. That’s not something the Mystics can fully prepare the returners for, even by scrimmaging against male practice players — especially because they don’t want to wear out the players who have played major minutes this season.
Austin’s first planned rest day came on Aug. 20 against the Dallas Wings, so Atkins was the only returner who played. She had 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting and five rebounds in 16:28, a few minutes more than she had played against Indiana. For the second straight game, she also had the best plus-minus on the team — plus-9 against Indiana and plus-2 against Dallas.
“A is naturally just steady. She doesn’t try to do too much. She knows who she is,” Cloud said postgame. “She knows her go-to spots, so it’s very easy for her to come back in and adjust … She’s just getting her feel back in our offense. I thought she came up with big shots when we needed them.”
Two days later, Atkins and Austin helped the Mystics to one of their better defensive efforts of the season in a four-point loss to the Connecticut Sun. Atkins struggled with her shot but earned praise from Thibault for her all-around game: seven points, three rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal in nearly 20 minutes. Austin finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals in 19:14.
“It always swings us, always shifts us, to have our rim protector there,” Cloud said of Austin’s defensive impact. “It’s always nice to be able to know that I’m gonna get beat as a guard and they gotta go through Kira once they get into the paint. She’s getting her flow back. … She’s in here every single day [at] 9 a.m. working her ass off to be on the court for us. So she’s just getting better day by day.”
As Austin and Atkins reacclimate to playing, the whole team is adjusting, too. The Mystics played somewhat differently while shorthanded, picking up the pace and getting a higher share of their points from 2-pointers, from unassisted baskets and in the paint. That suggests that guards such as Sykes and Cloud were scoring more off drives into the lane.
|Possessions per 40 Minutes
|% of Points from 2-Pointers
|% of Field Goals Unassisted
|% of Points in the Paint
|% of Points from Guards
|Through June 26 (until Austin injury)
|June 26-Aug. 12 (while shorthanded)
|Since Aug. 12 (getting players back)
“Because of what has happened to us in the past month, we’ve unlocked some things that we didn’t know we’re going to be,” Sykes said on Aug. 18. “Nobody knew that I was about to go on this scoring [burst]. Nobody knew that we were about to … implement some people that we wouldn’t expect to score on our team as much as they have … So for us, I think it’s unlocking those new things, having the other people come back, mixing that in and creating a formula to where we’re pushing through playoffs.”
Since Austin’s return, the guards are continuing to score a large share of the points, but the Mystics’ pace and shot distribution have more closely resembled their early-season numbers. Thibault wants to keep the faster pace but also make sure his stars get touches in the halfcourt, so that’s a balance the team will need to strike for the rest of the season.
“[It was] choppy early and then it got better,” Thibault said of the offensive flow against Indiana. “… You could see kind of everybody feeling themselves out, feeling their teammate out … The second time everybody came back in the game, the ones I subbed out early, it looked a little more comfortable.”
“It’s not totally dissimilar to how we started the season — a little rough around the edges on offense,” Thibault added on Friday. “And we were starting [to make] progress before the injuries.”
As a group, Thibault said, floor spacing and ball screens have been some of the easier offensive adjustments to make as players return from injury. The timing of off-ball cuts is harder, and the Mystics have worked on it often in practice lately.
Against Connecticut, Thibault saw improvements in the off-ball action. He lamented the team’s 20 turnovers, some of which came from throwing the ball “into a crowd of people” rather than waiting for a teammate to cut into space. But he also thought Atkins and guards Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Li Meng got good shots from off-ball screens.
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The defense is also starting to come around, which Thibault identified as a priority before the Indiana game. Until Austin’s injury, the Mystics led the WNBA in defensive rating, giving up just 91.6 points per 100 possessions. While the team was most shorthanded, from June 26 to Aug. 12, its defensive rating was 108.5 — the worst in the league. And since Austin’s return, that number has fallen to 100.3, which is third-best in the league in that span.
“Start to finish, our defense was probably the most consistent it’s been in a while,” Thibault said after the Connecticut game. “… Even the first quarter, it didn’t feel like we were playing well, and we look up and they have 19 [points] for the quarter. So if that’s a quarter where you’re not playing great, that should give you a little bit of confidence.”
That improvement is not surprising given that Atkins is a five-time All-Defensive Team selection at guard and Austin is the Mystics’ defensive anchor at center. Last season, Austin ranked second in the WNBA in defensive rating and in the top 10 in defensive win shares.
“She’s a defensive nightmare,” Connecticut head coach Stephanie White said postgame, “the way that she can block shots and her aggressiveness. … She’s a difference-maker.”
After Austin’s first game back, Sykes admitted she had to readjust. Austin had called a coverage, but Sykes wasn’t used to having her there and didn’t trust the call, to Austin’s chagrin.
As the Mystics’ returners reacclimate to game action and the team adapts its schemes, one thing can’t change: the approach of the players who stepped up while the team was shorthanded. Hawkins, Walker-Kimbrough and forward Myisha Hines-Allen each more than doubled their scoring averages during that time, and Cloud and Sykes also increased their averages.
“We grew as a team just facing so much adversity,” Hawkins said. “I think everyone did a great job of stepping up and taking on bigger and different roles during that time period. So … I think that that’s going to be something [that’s] big for us going down the stretch … It’s gonna take the whole team [to succeed in the playoffs].”
“When you go through some adversity and some obstacles, you have a choice how you want to respond to it,” Thibault said. “And … the more you do it, the more it becomes part of who you are.”
Now, those players have to stay aggressive and look to make the same impact. In the Mystics’ 2019 championship season, one of their biggest strengths was having a deep and reliable mix of scorers. Seven players averaged at least nine points per game, and any of them could carry a bigger load on a given night.
As Walker-Kimbrough and Hines-Allen return to reserve roles, both said they would play the same way they had as starters during the spate of injuries. “A lot of people have stepped up, but it’s not out of their character of what they do,” Hines-Allen said. “… Like, you look at [Hawkins]: [She’s] a great person who just gets the offense flowing, takes the open shots, can create for others. … That’s not going to change now that we’re getting players back. So I think this time while they were out, it was just building our confidence.”
With seven regular-season games remaining, the Mystics are tied with the Los Angeles Sparks for seventh place with a 15-18 record. They trail the fifth-place Minnesota Lynx by 1.5 games and the sixth-place Atlanta Dream by 0.5 games. They have one game left against each of those three teams, which are golden opportunities to solidify a better seed.
“They’re a scary team,” White said about the Mystics before the game on Aug. 22. “They’ve got multiple Olympians. They’ve got multiple players at all five positions [who] can stretch the floor, players who can finish inside, attack the rim, facilitate, make each other better. And, oh, by the way, when they’re healthy, they’re the No. 1 defensive team in the league.”
But do the Mystics have enough time to get everyone back and firing on all cylinders, to match the on-court chemistry other teams found weeks ago? They’ve shown glimpses of what they can be, but glimpses won’t be good enough. They need to find consistency, which they struggled with even when healthy.
On Friday, Thibault admitted to having “concerns” about whether the full roster will be healthy and in rhythm for Game 1 of the playoffs. But he noted that it worked out in 2019, when the Mystics brought Toliver back slowly from injury during their title run.
“There’s not a lot we can do about it,” he said, “other than try to bring people along the way they need … It’s always a little tricky [reintegrating players during the playoffs], but I’m kind of used to being in the mode right now of playing who I have available.”
The players, meanwhile, have had their spirits buoyed as teammates return from injury. And like Thibault, they believe they can put the pieces together and make it all work in the playoffs.
As Sykes put it, referencing the elite players returning to the lineup: “We’re gaining. We’re gaining. … They’re problems, but not our problem.”
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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.