September 21, 2023
Fueled by her own swagger, Natasha Cloud adds to her WNBA playoffs legacy in Mystics’ loss
‘I had to come in and cash that deposit that I made’
When Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud addressed the media on Tuesday, hours before a must-win Game 2 of the WNBA playoffs, she was right where she wanted to be.
It was the ultimate underdog scenario: The Mystics were the No. 7 seed playing the No. 2 seed New York Liberty, it was a road game, and the Mystics had already dropped Game 1 of the best-of-three series. None of that fazed Cloud, who has built her career on being an underdog since being drafted in the second round out of Saint Joseph’s in 2015.
“I feel like this is my comfort zone,” Cloud told reporters. “This is where I am. This is where I’ve been most of my career … And that’s the best place to be in, when your back is against the wall and all you can do is swing.”
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Cloud took her swing on Tuesday, nearly willing the Mystics to the upset before they lost in overtime, 90-85. The 6’ point guard had 33 points — seven more than she’d ever scored in 277 career games — and added nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. No player in WNBA history had ever put up that stat line before Tuesday, and her point total was the highest in Mystics playoff history.
The game featured seven ties and 11 lead changes, but the Mystics struggled to generate offense outside of Cloud. While she shot 12-for-22 from the field and 5-for-7 from 3-point range, the rest of the team only managed to go 20-for-58 from the field and 3-for-19 from 3-point range. In total, Cloud scored or assisted on 53 of the Mystics’ 85 points.
“I was going to be a villain and I was going to be a dawg tonight,” she said postgame.
At first glance, Cloud seems like an odd choice of villain, perennially smiling and goofing around with teammate Brittney Sykes off the court. But she got that tag after she told The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland on Monday that the Liberty would have “a rude awakening” in Game 2. She planned to shut down Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who had scored 29 points on 7-for-13 3-point shooting in Game 1. “We’re going to be in their [stuff]. I’m not coming off of Sabrina for 40 minutes,” Cloud said.
Her comments were relatively tame, all things considered — certainly not as inflammatory as when she guaranteed that the Mystics would beat the Connecticut Sun in the decisive Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals. (They did, and Cloud contributed 18 points.) For Cloud, focusing that intently on Ionescu was a sign of respect, but it got added attention given the playoff stakes.
Cloud responded to her own challenge, not only by scoring 33 points but also by holding Ionescu to 11 on 4-for-11 shooting. She face-guarded Ionescu at times, and Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said postgame that she told Ionescu to stay away from the ball at times rather than coming to get it against Cloud’s pressure. That pressure set the tone for the Mystics defensively: In regulation, the Liberty shot just 39.5% from the field and 17.4% from 3-point range.
“In a game like this, environment like this, I just wanted to lead by example first and foremost,” Cloud said. “And we needed a dawg tonight, and I think everyone followed suit and just didn’t have enough in our tank.”
Cloud’s words on Monday helped her lock in defensively in Game 2, and that in turn helped her offense take off. “Defense brings my offense, so because I was so amped up on defense with Sabrina, I felt like it was my night,” she said.
Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne said postgame that she knew in warmups that Cloud was going to play well. She saw an elevated level of focus and sharpened communication from the point guard she’s played with since 2017. And Cloud showed it in the first 30 seconds of the game by bottling up Ionescu on a drive, grabbing the rebound, and finding forward Myisha Hines-Allen for a layup.
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Cloud then opened her own account with a driving layup and three 3-pointers in the first quarter. In the second quarter, things got heated when Ionescu sank a 3-pointer over Cloud’s close-out and said something in response. Then Cloud returned the favor, driving on Ionescu for a reverse layup on the next possession and flexing and staring down Ionescu.
From there, it was all Cloud, as she held Ionescu to three points after halftime. Meanwhile, Cloud hit two threes in the third quarter and got a breakaway layup from stealing an Ionescu inbounds pass. New York tried to slow Cloud down by putting Betnijah Laney and Kayla Thornton, two tough and physical defenders, on her, to no avail. Knowing how much Cloud delights in passing, her teammates kept telling her to keep looking to score, and she did.
Cloud hit two more 3-pointers, one in the fourth quarter to give the Mystics their first lead since it was 15-14 in the first quarter and another to give the Mystics their final lead of the game in overtime.
“I had to come in and cash that deposit that I made,” she said afterward.
“She answered the bell,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters postgame. “When you put yourself out there like that, you have to back it up and 100% she backed it up, probably one of the best games of her career … I can’t think of any better than that.”
Beyond her words, Cloud fired herself up using two other motivators. She was upset with herself for scoring only four points in Game 1 — even though she added eight rebounds and eight assists, a first for a Mystics player in the postseason. She had helped carry the Mystics’ offense in the regular season, averaging a career-high 12.7 points per game, and she felt she’d let her team down by not scoring in Game 1. She also wanted to prove herself again defensively and stake her claim for a spot on the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team for a second straight season.
“I’m one of the best point guards in this league. Period,” she said. “And I don’t get the respect that I deserve.”
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Cloud’s game proved her point, and she also showed her composure in plenty of tense moments. She had spoken in August about how the Mystics’ many injuries this season had challenged her as a leader and how she’d learned to balance her normally fiery on-court persona with a more nurturing side. Save for a third-quarter technical foul, she delivered on that on Tuesday, too.
“She spoke and got in us when she needed to, but she also knew the time to kind of hang back and say, ‘Look, we got to take a deep breath,’” Delle Donne said. “… She was able to read the game and what was needed to be said at different moments.”
“I think sometimes a big moment helps somebody like her,” Thibault said, “because … you’re just on to the next thing. … You’re just going. Not a lot of time for excess emotion; you just have to play.”
The emotion spilled out in the postgame press conference, though. Cloud was proud of herself and her team but processing a sudden first-round elimination for the second straight season. She is also an unrestricted free agent in 2024, leaving her future with Washington uncertain.
“I’ve been in D.C. for eight years, and this the only team that looked at me coming out of college,” she said, wiping away tears. “And … I went through a lot of growing pains throughout my career. So to be where I am today, to be where my feet are today, I’m really proud and I know the younger version of myself would be proud. I know my family is really proud.”
Tuesday was far from the first time that Cloud has shined in this kind of moment — an elimination game in which the Mystics needed her to lead on both ends. Last season, for example, Cloud had 21 points, six rebounds and five assists in a season-ending playoff loss to the Seattle Storm on the road. That prompted then-Mystics head coach Mike Thibault to call her “a warrior.”
Since 2018, the year Cloud cemented her place in the Mystics’ starting lineup, she has played in six elimination games in the playoffs, winning three of them. In those six games, she is averaging 16.5 points per game, well above the 10.4 she is averaging in all other playoff games. She is also grabbing more rebounds and shooting much better in those games. (Her statistics in non-elimination playoff games are generally similar to her regular-season averages in the same seasons.)
|Elimination games, 2018-23||All other playoff games, 2018-23|
|Points per game||16.5||10.4|
|Field goal percentage||50.7%||40.0%|
|3-point shooting percentage||53.1%||38.7%|
|Rebounds per game||4.8||3.7|
|Assists per game||5.2||5.3|
|Minutes per game||33.0||30.4|
“I know that in an elimination game like this, she’s gonna play her absolute best game and do everything she can to get it done,” Delle Donne said. “And unfortunately, we weren’t able to help her out.”
“One of the trickiest things as a point guard is … [the] balance on how aggressive to be when you know you gotta get your teammates involved,” Eric Thibault said. “And to strike a balance like she did tonight, it’s something she’s done in the playoffs quite a bit … So I think she kind of peaks at this time of the year.”
After the buzzer sounded in overtime, that death knell for the Mystics’ season contrasting with the crowd’s jubilant shrieks, Cloud hugged several Liberty players, including Ionescu. “Iron sharpens iron,” she told Ionescu, wanting to make clear there was nothing personal about her pregame talk.
“Even though I take that villain role in the game, I have a lot of respect for what Sabrina and who Sabrina is,” Cloud told reporters. “… Everyone loves W beef, but I don’t want no beef. It’s all respect. It’s all love.”
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Cloud then walked past the scorer’s table, where a video board had displayed the WNBA slogan “Make ‘Em Talk” for at least part of the game, and waved in thanks to the Liberty crowd, which was cheering for her. On Sept. 10, Cloud had giddily waved goodbye when the Mystics got a buzzer-beating win in the regular-season finale, but this time, she and the crowd tipped their caps to one another, both grateful for what they’d just experienced. There was no beef there, either.
In the end, all that talk was just Cloud talking to herself. The underdog barked and turned herself into Goliath, and she almost sent the series to a winner-take-all Game 3 — another elimination game, exactly where she likes it.
When Cloud entered the media room to talk some more, Delle Donne had just finished. They hugged.
“It’s all you,” Delle Donne told her.
The Next’s Jackie Powell contributed reporting for this story.
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.