September 8, 2023 

What clinching a playoff berth means to injury-plagued Washington Mystics

‘This has been a storm of a season’

After the buzzer sounded on the Washington Mystics’ playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday, Mystics guards Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes walked through a hallway in Phoenix’s Footprint Center and started high-fiving their coaches.

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“We were just like, ‘Whoooo. Thank you, God,’” a relieved Cloud told reporters. “… This has been a storm of a season.”

Across the country, injured Mystics guard Kristi Toliver celebrated, too. She snapped a photo of her torn ACL bundled tight and elevated and her television tuned into the game. “Clinched,” she wrote on Instagram, with the letters in Mystics red.

The Mystics entered Tuesday’s game with a 17-20 record and just eight healthy players, but they were a team on a mission. Despite 28 injuries that have cost them an estimated 8.9 win shares to date, the Mystics somehow still had a chance to make the playoffs. And they were intent on doing it Tuesday after seeing Toliver go down and their first chance to clinch slip away two days earlier.

“We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough told reporters before Tuesday’s game. “But the fact that we still have an opportunity to determine our fate, we have to seize this opportunity for sure.”

“Our biggest thing right now is getting into playoffs, and not allowing someone else’s [result] to put us in the playoff spot, but actually going and getting it,” added forward Myisha Hines-Allen.

“Win the game and everything else will follow,” Sykes said. “… So yeah, just win the damn game.”

Cloud, the Mystics’ floor general and longest-tenured player, told herself, “I’ll be damned if I allow us not to get into playoffs tonight.” As she and two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne took the court, they looked at each other and redoubled that message. The result was a comprehensive 100-77 win and arguably the most fluid offensive performance the Mystics have had this season.

Cloud had 20 points on 6-for-8 shooting, 10 assists and five rebounds. Sykes had 18 points and was a team-best plus-27 in her 31.5 minutes. And Delle Donne had a game-high 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting and four rebounds in just under 24 minutes.

“Everyone knew the importance of tonight,” Cloud said. “And Elena is our franchise player, our leader, and she led us there.”

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The Mystics did it not by overwhelming the Mercury with new offensive wrinkles, but by trusting their basics and playing instinctively. At times this season, the Mystics have overthought things and gotten out of sync, Walker-Kimbrough said. Sometimes they get “a little antsy,” Sykes said, and inch closer together offensively rather than spacing the court fully. And sometimes the offense feels robotic, with players running to designated spots rather than making reads.

None of that happened on Tuesday. The Mystics spaced the court, read the defense and kept things simple. When something worked, they kept going to it, and whenever they needed a boost, they always seemed to get a defensive stop that got their offense humming again.

As a result, the Mystics shot 56.7% from the field, 56.5% from 3-point range and 100.0% from the free-throw line. It was just the fourth time in WNBA history, and the first since 2015, that a team shot at least 55-55-100 over a full game. They also had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.71, the franchise’s best mark in three years.

“They were a team that was actually playing and fighting for something, and you could definitely tell,” Phoenix interim head coach Nikki Blue said afterward. “… You could feel it.”

In the visitors’ locker room, the Mystics were happy but not jubilant. The celebration was “contained,” head coach Eric Thibault said. Mostly, there was a sense of relief.

Cloud recalled the 2021 season, in which the Mystics missed the playoffs despite having two chances to clinch a spot. This time, the Mystics made their second chance count.

“This is what we’ve been working our asses off for all season, what we weathered the storm for all season,” Cloud said.

Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough holds her follow-through on a mid-range jump shot near the baseline. The Mystics bench looks on in anticipation.
Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (32) holds her follow-through during a game against the Phoenix Mercury at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

By all accounts, what got the team the most excited in the locker room was Walker-Kimbrough’s performance. She entered Tuesday averaging 5.8 points per game, mostly as a reserve. But, starting in place of injured guard Ariel Atkins, she poured in 17 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the field, including 3-for-3 from 3-point range. “We for real jumped her in our locker room,” Cloud said.

In particular, the team loved a play in the third quarter where the 5’9 Walker-Kimbrough caught the ball on the perimeter, drove toward the paint and hit a one-legged floater over 6’9 Mercury center Brittney Griner. Both Delle Donne and Thibault brought up that shot two days later while answering questions about Walker-Kimbrough’s performance.

Walker-Kimbrough had particularly excelled in July, shooting 50.7% from the field and 47.8% from 3-point range in 10 games, before dipping in August, so getting her going again is a good sign. And she was just the tip of the iceberg on Tuesday — everyone found a rhythm.

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All season, as the Mystics weathered injuries to four starters and many of their reserves, and as they carried four replacement players for a total of 110 days, the players insisted that they could still be great when everyone got healthy. After all, this was a team that had preseason expectations of not only hosting a first-round playoff game, but also contending for a title.

Tuesday’s performance showed that that hope is still alive, even though Toliver’s injury means they won’t be whole for the playoffs. Starting center Shakira Austin’s status is also up in the air: She will see a hip specialist for an injury she originally sustained in June and aggravated on Aug. 31.

“We have had a lot of ups and downs and adversity, and that’s what playoffs are,” Delle Donne said on Thursday.

Now, the Mystics exhale and turn from playoff qualification to the question of playoff seeding. The goal is to win their final two games and end the regular season with a 20-20 record.

“It becomes a pride thing,” Sykes said on Tuesday. “It’s always been a pride thing, but now it’s like, all right, let’s get these last two wins. Let’s steal these two because I know [other] teams are worrying about seeding as well. So why not just put a little stench in it?”

Regardless of how they finish the regular season, the Mystics will begin their first-round playoff series with two road games and hope to force a decisive Game 3 at home. But they could get the No. 5 seed with two wins and some favorable results from other teams, or two losses could leave them as the No. 7 seed.

Five Washington Mystics players smile and laugh in a huddle.
From left: Washington Mystics players Queen Egbo, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Li Meng, Brittney Sykes and Tianna Hawkins huddle during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on July 9, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Whatever seed they get — and whether they fly to the West Coast, Midwest or Northeast to play a top-four team — the joy for the Mystics will be in starting over. The losses they took while playing with eight available players, or with three players on hardship contracts at the same time, will be ancient history. Walker-Kimbrough described it as “getting through this, clinching, finishing the season, starting with a fresh slate, taking a deep breath … [and] closing this book.”

“Honestly, with where we’ve been this season, I don’t give a damn where we land,” Sykes said. “… Wherever we drop, it’s hell for the other team.”

The Mystics weathered the storm this season, as Cloud put it, and on Tuesday, the skies began to part for them with a playoff spot assured. Now, the top four teams are on a thunderstorm watch, waiting to see who draws the reborn Mystics.

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.

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