September 9, 2023
Peak point guard: How Natasha Cloud set the Mystics’ single-game assists record
‘It's really, really clutch to just have somebody like her’
WASHINGTON — “Y’all feeling like 15 assists is hard. It’s not,” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud began to say in her postgame press conference on Friday. She had just set the franchise’s single-game assists record in a loss to the Atlanta Dream and was looking to credit her teammates.
Pressed by reporters, she corrected herself: “It’s still hard. I’m downplaying [it].”
Sitting next to her, longtime teammate Elena Delle Donne raised her eyebrows during the exchange. “It’s a lot,” she said, glancing in Cloud’s direction.
Cloud entered Friday’s game already holding several Mystics assists records. She has 1,254 career regular-season assists, more than double the next-closest player. She owns the top three marks for assists in a season, including her career high of 239 in 2022. She has recorded at least 10 assists in 17 career games, whereas no other Mystic has done that more than four times. And she was tied with former teammate Ivory Latta for the most assists in a game with 13.
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Cloud tied that single-game mark again in just three quarters on Friday, and when the buzzer sounded, she became one of just seven players in WNBA history to reach 15 assists. She accounted for over half of the Mystics’ points in the 80-75 loss, scoring seven herself and assisting on 34.
Guard Brittney Sykes was the biggest beneficiary, converting seven assists from Cloud into 17 points. Upon hearing those numbers in the postgame press conference, Sykes turned to her teammate. “You like me!” Sykes said, reaching over Delle Donne to high-five Cloud.
Those seven assists from Cloud to Sykes included three in the third quarter, when the Mystics clawed back from a sluggish first half in which they trailed by as many as 11 points to take several one-point leads. Atlanta responded by opening up a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but Cloud and the Mystics came back again. Inbounding the ball down three with 22.6 seconds left, Cloud found Sykes for a quick mid-range jump shot that cut the lead to one.
“They’re both phenomenal players. … They play with great pace,” Delle Donne said postgame. “So together that’s just so explosive and so tough for teams to handle night in and night out. They’re two of the toughest competitors you’ll see, and they compete every time they’re out there. And they have fun.”
Cloud might’ve had a chance to challenge New York Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot’s all-time record of 18 assists had the game gone to overtime, but the Dream put the game away after Sykes’ basket at the free-throw line.
While Sykes, who finished with 27 points overall, was a favorite target on Friday, Cloud also spread the wealth. She assisted on three of Delle Donne’s four field goals, as well as three of four for forward Myisha Hines-Allen. She found five different players for assists, and six of her passes produced layups.
“Tash has always been a tremendous passer, and we are really, really lucky to have her and play with her,” Sykes said. “There have been times where we don’t think we’re open and she manages to find us. So it’s really, really clutch to just have somebody like her.”
Head coach Eric Thibault credited Cloud for making good decisions when Atlanta helped early and often on pick-and-rolls. “She just was willing to make the right pass, the right play, and didn’t force too much and took what they gave [her],” he said. “And I thought she got a lot of people good shots.”
It was Cloud’s second straight game with double-digit assists after she had 10 to help the Mystics clinch a playoff berth on Tuesday. In that game against the Phoenix Mercury, Washington’s offense was clicking at a historic level, shooting 56.7% from the field and 56.5% from 3-point range.
In contrast, Cloud’s 15 assists on Friday were especially impressive because, beyond her contributions, the offense struggled. The Mystics made just 27 field goals and shot only 38.6% from the field.
There have been 18 games in WNBA history in which a player has had 15 or more assists, and only once has that player’s team made fewer field goals or shot a worse percentage than the Mystics did on Friday. That was back in 2002, when Sacramento Monarchs point guard Ticha Penicheiro had 16 assists in a loss to the Los Angeles Sparks, but Sacramento hit only 24 field goals and shot 37.5% from the field. So, even compared to other historic passing nights, Cloud had an outsized role in setting up her teammates on Friday.
“I just try to do my job every single night, and I understand that yes, there’s gonna be opportunities for me to score, but that’s not my job,” Cloud said. “My job is to find my scorers and find my shooters. So that’s what I tried to do, just really control our offense, take what the defense is giving and make reads. … It’s been a blessing to do it here in a Washington uniform for eight years, and it’s been a blessing to do it along[side] the people that I’ve played with.”
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On the season, Cloud ranks fourth in the WNBA with 6.2 assists per game, and she is also averaging a career-high 12.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. Her assists are one highly visible way she leads her team, but she also leads in plenty of other ways, from setting the tone defensively to speaking out about racism, gender equity and other important issues off the court.
This year, Cloud has said, has tested her leadership in ways she hadn’t experienced before. The Mystics have had a league-high 28 injuries, including an ankle injury that forced Cloud to miss three games. She had to be mindful of her body language and energy when the Mystics were most shorthanded, learning when to trade her usual high-volume, passionate style for a softer touch with tired teammates.
On the stat sheet, too, she has responded all season with whatever the Mystics need. First, she increased her scoring when the Mystics were most shorthanded, and she has dialed up her assists as key players have returned. In her past six games, Cloud is averaging 8.8 assists.
“I do my job every single night throughout the season, whether we have players [or] we don’t have players,” Cloud said postgame. “I lead this team every single night, and I take that with a lot of pride. I take that with a lot of ownership … [But] I’m not talked about enough. I’m a top point guard in this league. Period.”
“Period,” Sykes and Delle Donne echoed.
Beyond Cloud, though, part of what makes the Mystics’ offense dangerous is that they have other willing and capable passers. Sykes has flourished this season both as an off-ball scorer and as another option at point guard, and Hines-Allen gives the team a versatile and physical point forward.
Since Aug. 1, Hines-Allen has averaged 3.5 assists per game, up from 1.3 before that, and she told reporters on Aug. 22 that she felt like the game had been slowing down for her lately. Sykes’ assists have also increased slightly, from 3.5 to 4.2 per game.
On Tuesday, Hines-Allen had eight assists and Sykes had four alongside Cloud’s 10. On Friday, Hines-Allen had four and Sykes had two. Two of Hines-Allen’s assists against Atlanta came back-to-back in the fourth quarter, jumpstarting the Mystics’ comeback.
“She’s been really decisive and confident, which is the player that we need to see every single night,” Cloud said. “Because her [being] confident and aggressive, it makes us flow better. It makes us play better. … She plays her best basketball towards this point in the season every single year. So she’s just a gamer.”
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Having those options — and playing off the ball more often — is another adjustment Cloud has successfully made this season. The last time she played so many minutes alongside another point guard like Sykes was in 2019, when she and Kristi Toliver steered the offense to a WNBA championship. She is also playing more regularly with Hines-Allen, who has battled injuries and inconsistency over the last few seasons.
Still, Cloud remains at the center of everything, as she showed on Friday. She is the Mystics’ longest-tenured player, their heart and soul, and a fan favorite. Now the point guard stands alone in franchise history in assists, whether you’re looking across a single game, a season or a career.
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.