August 23, 2022
‘Warrior’ Natasha Cloud can’t save Washington Mystics from painful playoff exit
'They were just a little bit better all the way around'
After the Washington Mystics came up just short against the Seattle Storm in Game 1 of the WNBA playoffs on Thursday, point guard Natasha Cloud planted a stake in the ground. The Mystics would win Game 2 in Seattle, she declared, and force a winner-take-all Game 3 on the Mystics’ home court.
“We’re going to come back, we’re going to do it the hard way, and we’re going to take it back to D.C.,” she said. “And I’m gonna give you a ‘guaranteed, facts, period.’”
It wasn’t the first time Cloud had guaranteed a win: In 2019, she famously promised that the Mystics would win the deciding Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, and she delivered, helping the franchise win its first championship.
On Sunday, Cloud did everything she could to fulfill her latest guarantee, scoring 21 points on 7-for-16 shooting (5-for-8 from behind the arc) and adding six rebounds and five assists in nearly 34 minutes. She became only the fourth player in WNBA playoff history — and the first since 2011 — to record that combination of points, rebounds and assists along with five made 3-pointers. But the Mystics had trouble finding their rhythm on either end and lost 97-84, ending their season without a playoff victory.
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Cloud, the WNBA’s regular-season assists leader, finished the two-game series averaging 18.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting 50% from the field and 70% from behind the arc. Seattle limited her playmaking ability and challenged her to make open jump shots. She rose to the occasion after averaging 10.7 points on 39.9% shooting from the field and 31.9% from behind the arc in the regular season.
“There’s something about the postseason that Cloud gets to another gear,” Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn said after Sunday’s game. “… She likes these big moments and she prepares for these big moments. … You can see she’s a leader for that team, she’s a heartbeat for that team, and I think she knew the magnitude of the moment and wanted to step up.”
Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said postgame that he had had a good feeling watching Cloud warm up for Game 2, particularly as he watched her shoot 3-pointers. That feeling was quickly confirmed when Cloud scored the Mystics’ first points of the game on a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
Following a short rest early in the second quarter, Cloud subbed back in and promptly ignited an 11-4 run that gave the Mystics a one-point lead. She assisted on a 3-pointer by Elena Delle Donne, buried one of her own, grabbed a defensive rebound, and sank two free throws on the other end. A third 3-pointer with under a minute remaining in the quarter gave her 11 points. Cloud’s contributions helped the Mystics keep the game close for a half, even as the Storm shot 55.6% from the field and 58.3% from 3-point range against a Mystics defense that was the league’s best in the regular season.
Quinn told reporters that Seattle’s defensive strategies throughout the series focused heavily on Delle Donne, including double-teaming and trapping her, switching, and trying to take away her space to shoot and drive. Quinn was willing to give up 3-pointers to other players if it meant limiting Delle Donne, but for Game 2 in particular, she was also worried about containing Cloud’s drives to the basket. The schemes largely worked in Game 2, limiting Delle Donne to 12 points on 5-for-14 shooting from the field and Cloud to 2-for-8 shooting inside the arc, but Cloud punished Seattle from behind the arc.
“I struggled shooting the ball during the season, but I knew that my work was going to pay off at some point,” Cloud said postgame. “… With Elena on the floor, there’s so much attention drawn to her. Teams force us to make shots. So Elena did a really good job of kicking out of all those double teams and I was able to get some open shots and just shoot the ball confidently.”
Whereas her first-half shots were mostly open, Cloud hit multiple contested shots in the second half, often in key moments. A 12-foot pull-up jump shot over 6’4 Seattle center Tina Charles tied the game at 50 early in the fourth quarter, and Cloud’s final basket was a contested 3-pointer with 1:51 left to cut Seattle’s lead to 10. Between those baskets, she wriggled free for a few open shots to spark the Mystics’ last big run, a 10-2 stretch that cut the lead from 17 points to nine.
“Tash is a warrior. She’s going to play through everything,” Thibault said. “And that’s why she’s had success in this league getting better every year. She’s worked on things. … She’s done what she’s supposed to do.”
Between Cloud’s baskets, though, the Mystics struggled. They couldn’t cool off Seattle’s shooters in the second half, and all five Storm starters finished in double figures. Seattle got 15 points off of the Mystics’ turnovers and 40 points in the paint. The Storm seemed to dictate the action on both ends, getting easy baskets and forcing the Mystics to make tougher ones.
The loss dropped Thibault, the WNBA’s all-time winningest coach, to 1-7 against Seattle in his playoff career. He has lost to them twice in the WNBA Finals, in 2004 with the Connecticut Sun and in 2018 with the Mystics. When the Mystics arrived in Seattle for this year’s playoffs, he saw the Storm’s four championship banners hanging in the rafters, and he told reporters before the series began that the history “sits right there for me.”
For Thibault, Sunday’s game had shades of the 2018 series. That year, the Mystics simply didn’t have enough scoring to keep up with Seattle’s high-powered attack or enough defense to contain it; Seattle was the better team and it showed in a three-game sweep. But Thibault and his staff learned from that series and improved their roster in the offseason to have shooters at every position, so defenses couldn’t sag off, and the Mystics won the 2019 championship.
“I felt, a little bit like 2018, that they were just a little bit better all the way around [today],” Thibault said on Sunday. “We couldn’t match the same production that they had. … You can have as good a defense as you want; you still got to be able to score, too, and we weren’t good enough tonight at either end. I mean, they played like a great team tonight.”
Offseason roster moves are months away for Thibault, but he said on Sunday that he will look to tinker with the roster much like he did after 2018. He noted that his teams have generally been stronger offensively than defensively, but in 2022, the Mystics became a defense-first team in free agency and the draft. For 2023, Thibault wants to “reconstruct some parts of our roster to get balanced,” building on this year’s success defensively while ensuring that every player can punish defenses for leaving them open.
“You want to have the best of both worlds,” he said. The Mystics didn’t have that in 2018, but they got it in 2019, with a historic offense and a defense that buckled down late in the season to deliver a championship.
However, several players who have been with the Mystics since 2018 were less inclined to reflect on the past. Delle Donne said before this year’s series that she wasn’t focused on 2018 or the banners in Seattle’s gym; instead, she was asking herself, “What are you going to do about today?” And as she, Cloud and guard Ariel Atkins spoke minutes after Thibault on Sunday, their disappointment in the present was raw.
“Everything was tough,” Delle Donne said. “… [Seattle] just played the better game.”
That disappointment spilled over when, to their chagrin, the players were asked whether they agreed with Thibault’s comparison to 2018. Atkins rolled her eyes, sighed and looked down at the floor. Delle Donne looked down at her fingernails, then into the distance. Cloud responded for the group:
“I’m tired of talking about past years. Tired of 2018, I’m tired of 2019. Those years don’t matter. It’s 2022 and we just got knocked out in the first round of playoffs. So honestly, respectfully, I don’t give a fuck about any year before this. …
“Every year is different. Every year contracts end, contracts switch. We’re gonna have a new look. The three of us will be here and we’re going to continue to build and get better. And we’re going to be home in the offseason with each other, and … I can promise you we’re going to be better because of that.”
Speaking to reporters roughly 30 minutes after Game 2 ended, the Mystics players were still processing the pain of losing a game that they believed they could win — and of losing their season along with it. Cloud’s guarantee showed just how strong that belief was, and she did everything she could to make it happen. On this night, it simply wasn’t enough.
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.