June 13, 2023 

What explains the Washington Mystics’ early-season inconsistency?

They’ve been up and down from quarter to quarter this season — but there’s still time to fix it

Eight games into the WNBA season, things aren’t exactly going according to plan for the Washington Mystics. They returned their top five scorers from 2022 and several players from their 2019 championship team. They had the WNBA’s best defense last season, and this season, superstar Elena Delle Donne is fully healthy after missing 62 games from 2020-22 due to back issues. That combination of talent and cohesion was expected to produce one of the league’s best teams.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

The Mystics have lived up to expectations defensively — they are again holding opponents to the fewest points per 100 possessions in the WNBA — but their offense has been near the bottom of the league. Though their record is solid at 5-3, they have struggled to find consistency and chemistry and to protect the leads that come when they flash their offensive potential.

So far this season, the Mystics have led by double figures in six of eight games and by at least 20 points in two. Yet their only double-digit win was by 16 points in the season opener against the New York Liberty. On May 26, the Mystics fumbled a 16-point lead against the Chicago Sky, but a late 3-pointer by Delle Donne helped them escape. On June 2 against the Dallas Wings, the Mystics won by a single point after leading by as many as 11. And in two games against the Seattle Storm on Friday and Sunday, the Mystics led by as many as 14 and 28 but won by a combined 13 points.

On Sunday, the Mystics played their best half of basketball all season to start the game — and had their worst two quarters of the season after halftime. They led by 25 points after the first half, shooting 46.9% from the field and 57.1% from 3-point range. (In comparison, entering Sunday, they were shooting just 39.1% from the field and 28.7% from behind the arc.) They had 11 assists on 15 baskets, had doubled up Seattle on the glass, hadn’t allowed a single point off their turnovers, and were holding Seattle to 30.0% shooting from the field.

“Everything worked,” head coach Eric Thibault said postgame.

All that success even came without Delle Donne, who Thibault called a “comfort blanket” on offense because of her production in key moments. She sat out due to neck tightness — unrelated to her back injuries — and is considered day-to-day.

But the clock seemed to strike midnight on the Mystics after halftime, as they gave up a 6-0 run to start the third quarter and allowed Seattle to score as many points as it did in the entire first half — 21 — in just 7:09. Things got especially dire in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, when Seattle reeled off a 17-0 run to whittle a 21-point lead to four. The Mystics missed seven shots and committed six turnovers in that span. The Storm eventually got as close as three points before the Mystics closed out the win.

The Mystics shot just 22.2% from the field after halftime to Seattle’s 44.1%, with three assists on only six field goals. They lost the second-half rebounding battle and committed 13 turnovers, which Seattle converted into 10 points.

Washington Mystics head coach Eric Thibault stares into the distance with no one around him. He holds a dry erase board in his left hand.
Washington Mystics head coach Eric Thibault stares into the distance during a game against the Connecticut Sun at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Mystics players and coaches have spoken often about finding a better and more consistent offensive flow, pointing to a lack of ball movement, a slow pace, and a lack of focus as potential culprits. On June 2, after the Mystics nearly lost to Dallas despite leading by as many as 11 points, Delle Donne said of the offensive lulls, “We’ll get stuck on one side of the court. We’ll walk it up. We’re a team that has to play in space and with pace. When we’re doing that, it’s so hard to guard … We have to be consistent in that.”

The following night, after a two-point loss to the Minnesota Lynx in which the Mystics led by as many as seven, then trailed by as many as 12, guard Ariel Atkins was also asked what was allowing other teams to make big runs.

“The easy answer is to say, if we knew, we would stop doing it,” she said. “But I think … we just need to lock into each other and focus … and be intentional about what we’re doing every single possession.”

Guard Brittney Sykes went into more detail about that lack of focus after Friday’s seven-point win over Seattle. “We get a little stagnant or we let fatigue come into play,” she said. “And now … we’re not thinking basketball. We’re thinking about fatigue or we might be thinking like, ‘Oh, man, what do we do?’ Or we might be thinking about the last play when we were supposed to let that shit go.”

That night, Thibault again emphasized to his players how important every possession is. “We can’t have great possessions and wasted possessions,” he told them. That phrasing was familiar: Delle Donne had lamented “wasted possessions” back on May 23, after the Mystics lost at home to the Connecticut Sun.

Get 24/7 soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribe to The Next now and receive 50% off your subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

The Mystics had some of the same inconsistencies last year with a similar roster, outscoring teams by 9.6 points per 100 possessions in the first half but just 1.4 in the second, and it hurt them in the playoffs. They narrowly missed out on a top-four seed and the accompanying home-court advantage, so they had to fly cross-country to Seattle, where they got swept in two games.

This season, the Mystics’ first- and second-half splits are even starker. They are outscoring teams by 20.0 points per 100 possessions in the first half, which ranks second in the WNBA, but after halftime, they are getting outscored by a league-worst 12.9 points per 100 possessions. As a result, they are giving back nearly all of the 7.5-point lead they build in the first 20 minutes.

Offensive RatingDefensive RatingNet RatingPoint Differential Per Game
First Half102.
Second Half85.097.9-12.9-5.4
Full Game93.390.33.12.1
Advanced statistics for the Washington Mystics by half. (Source: WNBA Stats)

However, Mystics players have seen signs of progress, despite still surrendering big runs in the two Seattle games. After starting the season with four games in eight days and minimal practice time, the Mystics had two stretches in the past two weeks with at least five days between games, which allowed them to work on their weaknesses. The points of emphasis included better ball movement, more precise spacing, better timing of cuts, good body language, and responding to runs with a renewed focus.

“We were able to work on some things … and it showed today,” Sykes said after Friday’s game, “like some of those possessions where we’re flowing on offense and we’re just moving the ball. That’s because literally in practice, we were very anal on getting the ball to both sides, so just got to keep doing it.”

Point guard Natasha Cloud added on Sunday that she thinks the Mystics look “completely different” and much improved from the beginning of the season.

“We played two full quarters today of really good basketball on both ends of the floor,” she said. “Before, we would play like a quarter and a half, or before that, it was about a quarter that we were playing really well in. So we’re putting more positive minutes together on the floor right now. And so the next part of it is, okay, we have the first half figured out. Now how do we transition that to the second half? …

“There [are] wins within wins. … Our offense is looking better for longer spurts. That’s what I mean by we’re getting better.”

Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud dribbles the ball with her right hand and keeps her eyes up as a defender slides with her.
Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud handles the ball during a game against the New York Liberty at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

As the Mystics try to put four strong quarters together, they’ve still been able to grit out wins, including in both Seattle games. On Sunday, two veterans helped seal the victory: Cloud and forward Tianna Hawkins.

Cloud finished with a season-high 19 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the field and 4-for-6 from 3-point range, and she added five assists and four rebounds. She told reporters that two things pushed her to elevate her game: her desire to step up in Delle Donne’s absence and the fact that Seattle was honoring retired point guard Sue Bird, one of Cloud’s role models, postgame.

Meanwhile, Hawkins replaced Delle Donne in the starting lineup and finished with nine points, six rebounds and two steals. “She just does all the little things that might not necessarily show up on a box score,” Cloud said postgame, “but because she does them, we are better.”

Those plays included a few late-game offensive sets, Thibault said, where the Mystics’ first option didn’t pan out and Hawkins made sure her teammates kept moving into secondary actions. “It was great poise from a vet in that in that situation,” he said.

When the game came down to the wire, the players stayed poised. According to Cloud, the message in one late huddle was, “Everyone take a breath. We’re good, but we need to finish … and that’s in our control.”

As Sykes put it on Friday, “When things do get a little sticky, we choose to build up and not break down.”

After the Mystics’ defense carried them across the finish line on Sunday, players and coaches alike let out sighs of relief. “They’re huge wins,” Thibault said of sweeping the weekend series. “… Early-season road wins, no matter the form or fashion, we’ll take them all.”

The hope is that the Mystics will find consistency before it costs them more severely in the standings — and that this early-season turbulence will help rather than hurt in the postseason this time around. Cloud emphasized to ESPN’s Holly Rowe on Sunday that she still believes that the Mystics can win a championship. And they should be prepared for close games in the postseason after several nerve-wracking finishes already.

“Down the road, you can draw on these moments,” Thibault said on Sunday.

Another positive for the Mystics is that, at 40 games, this is the longest regular season in WNBA history, giving them more games to figure things out. Sykes put that into perspective on Friday.

“This is our seventh game,” she said. “… Holla at me at Game 20 and circle back, and hopefully we’re at our peak …

“We’ve seen it tonight, what we’re capable of, the team that we’re going to be. So we just got to build off of that.”

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

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.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.