September 20, 2021 

‘It’s a heartbreak’: How Washington Mystics missed the playoffs

'A season from hell,' but in the playoff race until the season’s final day

After the Washington Mystics lost a must-win game to the Minnesota Lynx, 83-77, on Sunday, Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud was uncharacteristically somber. Her voice was laden with emotion throughout her nearly 17 minutes at the podium as she contemplated the fact that the Mystics’ season was over, the loss dropping them out of the playoffs with a 12-20 record.

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“No one wanted to get into playoffs more than me,” she said. “I hate losing.”

Cloud and the Mystics had two opportunities to secure the eighth and final playoff spot, but a loss to the New York Liberty on Friday meant that everything was on the line on Sunday against the third-best team in the WNBA. Cloud and guard Ariel Atkins tried to will the Mystics to the upset, combining for 39 points on 58.3 percent shooting from the field and adding nine assists.

“Those guys know what it is to be at this point in the season and play like that,” Mystics acting head coach Eric Thibault said of the two guards, both of whom started on the Mystics’ 2019 championship team. “Tash and Ariel have been in big games.”

Along with center Tina Charles, the WNBA’s leading scorer, Cloud and Atkins have led the Mystics all season, and on Sunday the duo helped the team erase one double-digit deficit and nearly come all the way back from another. Cloud’s driving layup, assisted by Atkins, put the Mystics ahead with 1:40 left in the second quarter after being down by 12 just three and a half minutes prior. They fell behind by 13 in the third quarter and were still down by 12 with under five minutes to play, but they got within two points on two Atkins free throws with under a minute remaining.

“In the last six minutes, [I was] talking to myself like, ‘We go as you go. So I’ve got to go,’” Cloud said. “… I didn’t feel much pressure; it’s just, you know, that’s my job.”

“It was good to see Natasha Cloud just having that will to win,” Charles said postgame. “… That’s the personality that you need every night.” She had just as high of praise for Atkins, calling her “soon to be the face of this franchise” and praising her work ethic and professionalism throughout the season.

But Cloud and Atkins’ efforts weren’t enough, largely because former Mystic Aerial Powers torched the Mystics for a game-high 27 points. In the fateful third quarter especially, the Mystics seemed powerless to stop her, as she had 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting.

As a result, a season of “not quite” and “almost” for the Mystics ended on Sunday: The team was not quite healthy all season long, not quite able to come back from consistent first-half or third-quarter deficits, almost turning a corner and showing its full potential despite all of the adversity. But almost means that the Mystics will be sitting at home on Thursday when the playoffs start, unable to attempt the postseason run that head coach Mike Thibault had envisioned throughout the season.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (left) collects herself after taking a hit during a game against the Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 19, 2021, as teammates Tina Charles (31) and Natasha Cloud (9) look toward the bench. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

“There were definitely missed opportunities,” Eric Thibault said on Sunday. “We can probably circle the games on the calendar that were the most missed opportunities. … We had, at one point in the season, leads at halftime in well over half of our games. But you need a certain level of talent to close games like that when it gets tight, especially when you’re playing good teams, and obviously we had a lot of talent taken out of our team through circumstance and bad luck and injuries.”

Just three Mystics played in at least 29 of the team’s 32 games, and one of those three, forward Theresa Plaisance, was limited at times due to a back injury. The team used 18 different starting lineups, and former WNBA MVPs Charles and Elena Delle Donne played just 16 minutes together all season. As if that wasn’t enough, Mike Thibault tested positive for COVID-19 just last week, ruling him out for the final two games.

“This has been a season from hell, to be honest with y’all,” Cloud said. “Every adversity that could be thrown at a team and an organization was thrown at us this year and it’s like, when are the punches going to stop?”

“You try to adjust, you try to stay consistent, you try to stay poised, you try to bring out the best of people, you’re trying to learn people’s strengths and weaknesses,” she added of the personnel changes, which also included three players being cut and two being added midseason. “But when you’re constantly shifting and changing … it is really hard to find that fluidity and that flow within itself. Because it’s almost like speed dating—you’re trying to figure out, like, ‘Okay, who are you, what are you about and how do we mesh together? How do we flow together?’ But I am proud of this team for trying to figure it out all season long.”

Eric Thibault credited Charles, who played in 27 games and scored 30 or more points 10 times, with being an anchor for otherwise fluctuating lineups, particularly in the first half of the season. “It’s one thing to make sure, yeah, I got my shooter on the back side, but you don’t even know who’s in the game sometimes,” he said. “… [But] she sustained that level throughout the year. She saw more double-teams; she saw, like even tonight, so much attention from Minnesota, trying to deny her and come with backside help and she … delivered almost every night.”

Despite all of the adversity, Cloud and Charles both talked about how much they appreciated and loved their teammates. “I’m very thankful that players continue to come out and play hard,” Charles said. “… There was always great energy in the locker room; it was always very light in the air and everything. [That’s] something that I’m not used to—I’m very serious, I’m very about business—but it was good to have.”

The Washington Mystics huddle before a game against the Dallas Wings on Aug. 26, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

The Mystics’ locker room was quiet Sunday after the loss, according to Charles—a far cry from the normally boisterous environment fostered by players such as Cloud, guard Shavonte Zellous and forward Myisha Hines-Allen. After four straight playoff appearances, including a WNBA Finals appearance in 2018 and a championship in 2019, the Mystics were suddenly on the outside looking in.

Cloud said that this feeling was far worse than what she felt in 2016, when the team missed the playoffs with a 13-21 record and nine of the 11 players who appeared in at least 15 games were age 25 or younger. “I think in [2016], we were the youngest team in the W,” she said. “We were only losing games by three to five points all season long, and it was just like we couldn’t get over the hump. We were still missing pieces to the puzzle …

“I think what makes this [season’s outcome] so much harder is we had so much adversity and we were still in this position to get into the playoffs and we didn’t. So it’s a heartbreak. It really, really is. It sucks.”

Besides reflecting on the missed opportunities Sunday and throughout the season, Thibault and Cloud also discussed how the Mystics need to improve ahead of the 2022 season, when they hope to have Delle Donne and forward Alysha Clark back from injuries and contend for another championship. Thibault painted the Mystics’ needs with a broad brush, covering both the offensive and defensive ends. “You don’t go 12-20 and say, ‘Yeah, our talent level’s where we need it to be,’” he said.

In contrast, although Cloud knows the Mystics’ offense can get better—it ranked eighth in the WNBA this season—she zeroed in on the defensive end. The team ranked second to last in defensive rating this season despite Cloud and Atkins both being All-WNBA defenders, and Cloud called on the entire team to self-reflect this offseason. “Defensive intensity, defensive pressure, defensive IQ needs to be our focal point going into next season,” she said.

The quietness of the locker room on Sunday portended what the Entertainment and Sports Arena will be like in the days to come, as players scatter and begin their offseasons. But don’t mistake quiet for slumber: After the Mystics rest and rehabilitate their injuries, they will be back in full force, armed with lessons and newfound strength from this season.

“Weathering the storm this season has … challenged us as people, challenged us as leaders and we’re going to be better people and players because of it,” Cloud said. “… It just shows us, life’s going to throw shit at you, but you continue to march on, you dust yourself off and we’re strong enough to do that.”

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.

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