June 5, 2023
Takeaways from Washington Mystics’ lone back-to-back of 2023
The basketball was inconsistent, but the support for Wear Orange Weekend was steady
WASHINGTON — After the Washington Mystics eked out a 75-74 win over the Dallas Wings on Friday in the first of back-to-back games, head coach Eric Thibault called it “a big gut-check win.”
Twenty-four hours later, the Mystics suffered a gut-check loss to the previously winless Minnesota Lynx, 80-78, to fall to 3-3 this season.
For a team that expects to contend for a championship, the early results have been underwhelming. The Mystics have the league’s second-best defense but the third-worst offense. They have shown flashes of excellence, leading by double figures in four games this season. But they have won just one game by double figures, and they surrendered a 12-point lead in a loss to Connecticut on May 21.
Against Dallas, an 11-point Mystics lead in the third quarter became a six-point deficit early in the fourth before the Mystics rallied to win. And against Minnesota, the Mystics led by as many as seven early in the second quarter, but at halftime, the Lynx had a seven-point lead.
For the WNBA’s 27th season, save 27% on your subscription!
The WNBA playoffs are here, and our staff of writers is working hard to bring you everything you need to know about every team still in contention. Get started with a paid subscription, which helps support all of our writers, editors and photographers who work tirelessly to bring you this coverage, and save 27%!
“To be a great team — to be a good team — you can’t do a lot of hard work and get yourself a cushion and then turn around and just give it back because of lack of focus or lack of execution,” Thibault said he told his team after Saturday’s loss. “We’re not a good enough team to just have three to four minutes where we just lose our minds … and then [we’ve] got to work really hard to get back in the game. We just can’t have a stretch in each half where it’s a struggle.”
“We have to find our focus, and that’s something that we can control,” point guard Natasha Cloud added. “And so it’s on each of us … It’s not going to happen overnight … but it needs to happen.”
As the Mystics look to turn the page, here are four takeaways from the team’s only back-to-back of the season.
Shots fall for Atkins
In her first four games of the season, All-Star guard Ariel Atkins was shooting just 30.6% from the field and 11.8% from 3-point range, well under her career averages of 41.8% and 36.2%, respectively. She found other ways to chip in — including with five steals against Chicago on May 26, suffocating defense, and perfect shooting from the charity stripe — but the offensive struggles were uncharacteristic.
“I told her just now, I gotta help her,” Thibault said after the third game of the season on May 23. “I gotta get her some easier looks.”
On Friday, Atkins’ shot started to fall, and she scored a then-season-high 16 points on 3-for-7 shooting from the field, including 3-for-6 on 3-pointers. She also contributed eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block.
Atkins’ first 3-pointer came about 13 minutes into the game, when she took a handoff from forward/guard Elena Delle Donne and drained the shot from near the top of the key. She hit two more in the third quarter: One came from the corner and benefited from the kind of friendly bounce that had eluded her through the first four games. The other was a wide-open swish off an assist from Cloud that capped an 8-0 Mystics run.
“[It] feels really good. I mean, I’ve been waiting on it,” Atkins told The Next postgame. “… I just feel like I’m taking good shots. And I think that was a big thing for me is not rushing my shot or not trying to do stuff outside of myself, but just staying within it and let the rhythm find [me].”
Atkins built on that performance on Saturday, when she reset her season high with 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting from the field and 4-for-8 from 3-point range. Twelve of her points came in the second half, including a crucial offensive rebound and putback that brought the Mystics within two points with 17 seconds left.
“To be honest, making shots is — I’m thankful for it, but I think my confidence came from when I was missing shots and I was still locked in to shoot,” Atkins told reporters postgame. “I think that’s where I build myself up and I tell myself, at the end of the day, you still have to be who you are, regardless of what it’s feeling like, regardless of what it’s looking like … I’m a shooter. I gotta shoot the ball.”
Forward Myisha Hines-Allen made her season debut on Saturday after missing five games as she recovered from offseason knee surgery. She was on a minutes restriction and played just 7:40, but she had four points on 1-for-5 shooting, two rebounds and a steal.
After the first media timeout, Hines-Allen knew she would check in soon and got on a stationary bike to prepare. As she pedaled, her heart started to race in anticipation of playing in a game. She checked in with 2:33 left in the first quarter, and Mystics fans rose to their feet and roared in delight in what were the loudest cheers of the day to that point.
“Once [the refs] called me in, the crowd was crazy,” Hines-Allen told reporters postgame. “And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I feel loved and missed.’ … It felt good, I’m not gonna lie. It felt really good.”
The fans continued to cheer every time Hines-Allen touched the ball and again when she checked in a second time in the third quarter. They seemed to be trying to will Hines-Allen to make a shot. She scored her first points of the season on two free throws in the second quarter, and her first field goal came on a driving layup in the third quarter.
After a Lynx basket, Hines-Allen got the ball near half court to start the offensive possession. “It was my play, so I had to go get a bucket,” she said afterward. She dribbled to the top of the key with her left hand, then drove hard against Lynx rookie forward Dorka Juhász. She got a step on Juhász and made a right-handed layup on the left side of the basket.
“That’s a familiar sight for Mystics fans,” play-by-play announcer Meghan McPeak said on the broadcast.
Hines-Allen is still working on her conditioning, and she said she struggled to catch her breath after she got tired. But her knee felt strong, she said, and even though she missed a few close-range shots, she looked confident and didn’t hesitate to attack. Especially for a player who struggled at times with decisiveness last season before her surgery, that’s a good sign.
The IX Newsletter: Six different women’s sports in your inbox every week!
If you love The Next, you’re going to want to subscribe to The IX, a women’s sports network sent straight to your email. Six days a week, hear from our plugged-in reporters for women’s soccer, tennis, basketball, golf, hockey and gymnastics. Breaking news, analysis, curated links across each sport and interviews with newsmakers come your way six days a week!
Subscribe now and join us, just $6 a month or $60 a year. It’s the women’s sports media network we all wished for, and now it’s here! Get your subscription 50% off for the first year by joining now.
Thibault, a first-year head coach, got his first win in the Mystics’ season opener against the New York Liberty. However, it took a little longer for him to win his first coach’s challenge, a new rule in the WNBA this season that allows coaches to challenge one call per game.
Thibault had lost his first two challenges, which coincidentally both sought to overturn fouls called on Atkins. But on Friday, in the fifth game of the season, he successfully challenged an out-of-bounds call in the fourth quarter in which the officials initially ruled the ball went off Atkins. Atkins immediately whirled around and signaled to the Mystics’ bench to challenge it, and she told The Next postgame that she was certain that the call was wrong because she couldn’t reach the ball. After watching the replay that was shown to the crowd, Thibault challenged the play.
Although the challenge succeeded, Thibault lamented his decision a few minutes later, when he wanted to overturn a different call. “But I’m in the good books, I guess,” he quipped postgame, referring to his successful challenge. He did not use his challenge on Saturday, so his record on challenges through six games remained at 1-2.
Cloud leads another ‘Wear Orange’ Weekend
On Friday, the Mystics held their fifth annual “Wear Orange” game, which honors victims and survivors of gun violence. The Mystics gave white bracelets with orange LED lights on them to every fan in attendance, and those orange lights often lit up the stands throughout the game. The players and staff wore orange warm-up shirts that said, “Mystics Wear Orange,” with the “I” in Mystics and “Wear Orange” in black font and the rest of the text in white. (Orange is the color of the movement because it’s what hunters wear for visibility and protection.)
“That added an extra fire under me today because I’m playing for them, playing for the people that were in the stands,” Cloud told The Next postgame. “And it’s just an opportunity for us to put on a show for some people that have been through some hard things.”
In addition, the team held a pregame clinic for survivors of gun violence that second gentleman Douglas Emhoff also attended, and Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts was honored at halftime. Cloud met postgame with volunteers from Moms Demand Action, a grassroots effort to end gun violence, and asked them how the Mystics and their ownership group, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, can help further.
The Mystics’ “Wear Orange” events were part of a larger movement for Wear Orange Weekend from June 2-4. Nine Washington sports teams, including the Mystics, donated a total of $100,000 to Peace For DC, a local nonprofit that aims to reduce gun-related murders. Across the country, more than 50 professional sports teams participated in Wear Orange Weekend, and 20 stadiums and arenas were lit up in orange, according to Moms Demand Action.
Yet the Mystics’ work to combat gun violence has also extended beyond Wear Orange Weekend. In June 2019, Cloud drew attention to the issue by leading a media blackout after bullets struck Hendley Elementary School, which is less than two miles from the Mystics’ arena. She and her teammates have continued to speak about gun violence ever since, including with several media blackouts in May 2022 in response to a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
“If there’s anything that we need, they’re always jumping up and also offering sometimes good ideas or ways that they want to be invested,” Moms Demand Action executive director Angela Ferrell-Zabala told The Next about the Mystics. “So Natasha and others, they’re not strangers to us. They show up all the time and they’re really invested. … They care about the city that they’re in and also care about this crisis across the country. … Natasha has been an incredible ally and partner.”
Over the last five years, Cloud has grown as an advocate as she has better understood how far her voice carries — and how to handle the emotional toll of continuously speaking out about injustice. She feels both pride in the Mystics’ sustained efforts to combat gun violence and frustration at how little has changed: Guns still kill 120 Americans and wound more than 200 per day, according to Everytown.
“It’s pride in that we are a safe haven here in the Mystics, that we still really are committed to what we said in 2019 of, we want to be here for this community, we care about this community deeply, and we care about gun violence and preventing it,” Cloud said. “So pride in that sense … but then also the frustration of, how are we still here?”
Over the years, Cloud has consistently worn orange warm-up shirts, even for games that don’t fall on Wear Orange Weekend. Her teammates joined her on Friday and again on Saturday, hoping that their message gets through.
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.