September 14, 2023
Washington Mystics are excited, confident about ‘ideal’ playoff matchup with New York Liberty
Mystics know they’re better than their record — and they intend to prove it against a superteam
With 0.5 seconds left in the Washington Mystics’ regular-season finale on Sunday, guard Brittney Sykes leaped in the air near the free-throw line. She caught an inbounds pass from point guard Natasha Cloud and lofted an alley-oop jumper over 6’4 New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart.
When the ball swished through the net, several things happened at once.
Sykes streaked down the court triumphantly, tugging on her jersey and racing to hug her father, who was sitting courtside on his birthday.
The Mystics got a walk-off 90-88 win over the WNBA’s second-best team, allowing them to finish an injury-riddled regular season on a high note. It was just their seventh road win of the season — an important result for a team that will open the playoffs away from home.
That shot also evened the season series against New York at 2-2 and cemented a playoff series, starting Friday, between the Mystics as the No. 7 seed and the Liberty as the No. 2.
“It was a great shot,” Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough told reporters on Tuesday. “… We’re gonna take that momentum and carry it over into the postseason. But we know it’s go time and we know playoffs start as soon as that buzzer ended.”
In the preseason, the Mystics had insisted they were a force to be reckoned with, a championship contender alongside two “superteams” in the Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces. “There’s a lot of hype around New York and Vegas,” forward Elena Delle Donne said on May 1. “I think there’s some people that would think, ‘Just fast-forward to the end of the season and let those two compete for the championship,’ but … we’re excited to make our mark.”
Now, the Mystics get a hoped-for playoff matchup against one of the league’s best. But instead of it being the semifinal or final they’d imagined, it’s in the first round, after a league-high 28 injuries cost the Mystics an estimated 9.0 win shares this season. They played without three starters for over a month and had four replacement players signed for a total of 110 days.
“We have been through a hell of a regular season,” Sykes said after Sunday’s game. “… I’m just really proud of our resilience … Credit to each other, credit to the coaching staff, credit to the organization because there’s a lot of things that were happening behind the scenes that kept us afloat. We said it in the locker room: [If] you take three starters from any team in this league, they’re not going to do what we were able to sustain in this whole entire season.”
“We got through a real rough patch. Our goal at the start of the season wasn’t to be the No. 7 seed,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on Tuesday. “I didn’t think we’d be playing New York in the first round. But you find out something about yourself in those tough moments.”
The Mystics still aren’t fully healthy: Reserve guard Kristi Toliver is out for the season with a torn ACL, and starting center Shakira Austin aggravated a hip injury on Aug. 31 and will miss at least the first two playoff games. But the Mystics feel like they can start anew in the playoffs, without so many injuries or their 19-21 regular-season record dragging them down.
“It’s a group right now that is appreciative to have a clean slate a little bit and a fresh shot at the playoffs,” Thibault said. “… We only have to worry about New York Friday night. We don’t have to carry all that kind of turmoil we went through … into the series.”
Even though New York finished 13 games ahead of the Mystics in the standings, the Mystics are excited about their chances. They have confidence that they’ll play their best in the playoffs, they want the challenge of playing a top team, and they insist that they match up well with the Liberty. After all, the Mystics beat the Liberty twice this season, one loss was on the road in overtime, and the other loss came when the Mystics were down three starters.
“You don’t want to play a team that got seven bigs above 6’5, you know what I mean?” Sykes said, exaggerating somewhat about the size of the No. 4 seed Dallas Wings. “… So yes, New York is one of the ideal matchups. Won’t say perfect, but they’re one of the ideal matchups.”
Forward Myisha Hines-Allen added on Tuesday, “I feel like every time we play New York, whether it’s a win or loss, we like the matchup. I think that we match them pretty well on both sides of the ball.”
Sunday’s game showed that in ways beyond the final score. The teams each had 25 defensive rebounds; each team had four players score in double figures; and they had near-identical totals in assists, turnovers and fouls. The Mystics were already locked into the No. 7 seed when that game tipped off, but they were motivated knowing that they’d likely draw the Liberty again in the playoffs.
“Slim and I both, we want[ed] to send a message: You are gonna have to see us all series long,” Cloud said postgame, using Sykes’ nickname. “Regardless of the injuries, regardless of whatever, you got to go through a really good team still and a team that’s hungry … This game today was amazing. It’s a little taste of what the series is going to look like.”
The Mystics and the Liberty are both using this week of practice to break down film, fine-tune their schemes and see what they can tweak to gain an advantage. But for the Mystics to win the series, the keys are still familiar, echoing what they preached in the regular season.
The Mystics must win at least one game on the road to advance — and they can only do that by playing consistently and well for 40 minutes, which is something they have discussed often this season. They will need to rely on their defense, which was elite before all the injuries, struggled while the team was shorthanded and has noticeably improved in recent weeks.
The Mystics will also continue to lean on Sykes, the main addition to a team that was a No. 5 seed in the playoffs in 2022. Sykes has been one of the team’s most consistent players, starting all 40 games this season and carrying much of the scoring load while others were injured. She is averaging 15.9 points per game on 43.9% shooting from the field — and in four games against the Liberty, she is averaging 17.8 points. She is also the Mystics’ leading rebounder against New York, at 7.0 rebounds per game, and will be counted on for her lockdown defense.
“Slim has definitely added just another sense of a weapon, especially on both ends of the floor,” Cloud told reporters on Wednesday. “She’s a dawg. She’s made us … grittier; she’s made us tougher, which I thought is what we needed … She’s brought that dawg and it’s brought all of our dawgs out, too. …
“That was our best pickup in the offseason that we could have done is bringing in a player and a person like Slim, someone that can have impact, can score in bunches, can defend in bunches and just really shift the momentum of a game herself. That’s huge.”
Contain Stewart and Ionescu
The Mystics have had success defending Stewart, the AP WNBA Player of the Year, and will need to maintain that in this series. She is averaging 15.8 points per game against the Mystics on just 32.8% shooting from the field, compared with 23.0 points on 46.5% shooting over the full season. When Delle Donne is healthy, that responsibility often falls to her, two former MVPs with similar games going head to head.
“I just feel like [our post players] were aggressive — Elena, Tianna [Hawkins], Myisha, everyone,” Walker-Kimbrough said about the defense on Stewart in Sunday’s game. “… I also think our guards, if we got crossmatched, [we were] just giving her different looks.”
“It’s definitely a team effort,” Hines-Allen said, “and we have each other’s backs when we’re playing her.”
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On the flip side, the Mystics must contain All-Star guard Sabrina Ionescu, who is averaging 21.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists against the Mystics this season while making 45.7% of her 3-pointers. She is getting somewhat higher shares of her points in transition (21.2%) and at the free-throw line (20.0%) against the Mystics than over the full season (about 15% each).
“It feels like every time you lose her or she slips free, she makes you pay,” Thibault said. “I mean, she’s in that rarefied air of you think it’s going in every time she shoots it. And I feel that way about a couple of ones on their team, to be honest with you.
“I think the biggest thing you can do to help everything is be good in transition. … If we want to win this series, we got to be elite in that area, transition [defense].”
Win the board and bench battles
The Mystics will be at a size disadvantage without the 6’5 Austin, but they have to find ways to finish strong defensive possessions with rebounds. With Austin and the 6’5 Delle Donne missing a combined 38 games this season, the Mystics finished last in the league in rebounding rate at 47.3%, while New York ranked second at 52.9%. In their four games against each other, the difference was even more pronounced: The Liberty grabbed 57.6% of the available rebounds and got offensive rebounds at nearly twice the rate the Mystics did.
Hines-Allen, who at 6’1 will likely defend the 6’6 Jonquel Jones for stretches, will be important here. The series may come down to the supporting casts, including Hines-Allen as well as Walker-Kimbrough and Hawkins for the Mystics. Each of those players started at least 15 games while the Mystics were shorthanded, and that experience could help them in these moments.
“They’re gonna get opportunities to make plays,” Thibault said, citing how intently the Liberty have focused on stopping Delle Donne. “And it’s about the mentality as … much as whether the ball goes in or not. You’ve got to be willing to take shots and be aggressive.”
Hines-Allen, Walker-Kimbrough and Hawkins are all shooting better against the Liberty than on the season overall, led by Hawkins at 59.1%. Walker-Kimbrough is at 55.6%, and Hines-Allen has played her best basketball of the season lately, averaging 7.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists in her past five games. In that stretch, she is shooting 44.4% from the field, which is 12.6 percentage points better than she had shot up to that point.
“I think it’s just, for the most part … going with the flow of the game and knowing your role,” Hines-Allen said about her recent performances. “You definitely know your role at the end of the season, whatever it is. You always will know it. So I think now it’s just flourishing in that.”
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During the regular season, when the Mystics ran onto the court for pregame warmups at home, the song that usually blared was Latto and Cardi B’s “Put It On Da Floor Again,” which opens with the line, “Rip me out the plastic, I been actin’ brand-new.” That’s the energy the Mystics have entering the playoffs. Wipe away their regular-season record; what matters now is their record in this best-of-three series.
“It’s a marathon, but it’s really like a little sprint, too,” Hines-Allen said. “… We definitely have to go up there looking to get the win right off the bat. No waiting. Just go right up in there.”
“The lights get bigger, so you got to play better,” Cloud said. “I love this moment. I love postseason. … This is when you really show what you’re made of and what your organization is made out of. So I’m excited for this series.”
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.