June 26, 2023
Even in defeat, Washington Mystics show newfound consistency, offensive improvement
Sunday's scoreboard doesn’t tell the full story of Mystics’ growth this season
After the Washington Mystics eked out two wins against the Seattle Storm in early June, point guard Natasha Cloud told ESPN’s Holly Rowe, “We’re progressively getting better every single week.”
The improvements weren’t always easy for fans to see, Cloud later acknowledged. For the first nine games of the Mystics’ season, inconsistency was a frequent issue. After blowing out New York at home in the season opener, the Mystics split their next eight games.
They fumbled several double-digit leads and sometimes struggled to move the ball on offense and focus for 40 minutes. In the second game against the Storm, for example, the Mystics led by as many as 28 points but surrendered a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter and won by just six.
But on Sunday, in their second game of the season against New York and 13th game overall, the ways the Mystics have improved were apparent, even in defeat. They entered the game on a three-game winning streak, and they dominated early on both ends. A few late free throws the Mystics missed could’ve flipped the 89-88 overtime loss in the other direction.
“I do think we’re continuously getting better,” guard Ariel Atkins told reporters afterward. “And it feels terrible to say that in a loss, but it’s the truth.”
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In the Mystics’ first nine games, they had one of the weaker offenses in the WNBA, despite excellent play from two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne. They scored the second-fewest points per 100 possessions in the league (92.3) and had the worst effective field goal percentage (43.6%). Having the league’s best defense, though, helped them weather the rough patches offensively.
During their three-game winning streak, the Mystics made obvious progress offensively. They scored 11.5 more points per 100 possessions than they had in their first nine games, per WNBA Stats, and their effective field goal percentage jumped by nearly eight percentage points. Their 3-pointers and mid-range shots fell at higher rates, and they got about seven more points per game off their opponents’ turnovers and in fast-break situations.
“In these last couple games, the offense has just been more fluid,” guard Brittney Sykes said on June 22 after wins over the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky. “That ball’s been moving; it’s been a magnet. And everybody’s been knocking down shots and having confidence in the shot selections that we’re getting.”
In particular, the Mystics’ reserves stepped up: Those players’ effective field goal percentage increased by 13 points during the winning streak, and their offensive rating — points scored per 100 possessions — rose by 12.9 points. By comparison, the starters saw their effective field goal percentage rise by 5.6 points and their offensive rating dip slightly.
Notably, the Mystics logged zero “clutch minutes” during the winning streak. Clutch minutes are defined as those where the score is within five points with no more than five minutes left. The Mystics didn’t have those because their more consistent play didn’t allow the larger comebacks that had made previous games dicey.
The Mystics put those improvements to the test on Sunday against New York, which has been one of the best teams in the league this season. Although the Liberty ultimately won the two-hour, 41-minute overtime marathon, the Mystics sustained much of the progress they’d made during their winning streak.
Washington opened the game on a 9-0 run, shooting 4-for-4 from the field and forcing a Liberty timeout. It was 13-0, with four different Mystics players scoring, before New York got on the board.
The starting guards of Cloud, Atkins and Sykes all excelled, combining for 60 points on 58.3% shooting. They had each started the season relatively slowly before rounding into form in recent weeks, and they showed on Sunday how dangerous they could be together on offense, in addition to their combined 10 All-Defensive Team selections.
“I thought all three of them were good,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters postgame. “[They] got us organized, picked their chances to be aggressive getting downhill in pick and roll, and then made the easy play when it was there.”
“It feels good, not only when we can get ourselves going, but we can kind of get each other going, hype each other up, and let each other know that we are capable,” Atkins added. “Our team looks a lot different when we’re aggressive from every position.”
To Atkins’ point, the Mystics have often gone as their starting guards have gone. They tend to shoot better as a team when Sykes in particular has a good shooting night, and when Atkins or Cloud is scoring in bunches, the team often scores more points overall. The correlations between individual offense and team offense are less pronounced for starting forwards Delle Donne and Shakira Austin.
On Sunday, Sykes shot well (75.0% from the field) and Atkins and Cloud led the team in scoring, and the Mystics’ 88 points and 47.8% shooting were their best and second-best marks of the season, respectively.
“I actually just looked at [our field goal percentage] and that felt really good,” Atkins said postgame. “I mean, it’s so many good things that you could take away from this game. That’s why it sucks that it went down the way it did.”
In part, those strong individual performances reflect the cohesion and chemistry that the Mystics have developed lately. Their spacing and ball movement is better, and they’re finding more success in transition. They’re getting more familiar with Thibault’s substitution patterns and rotations. And they’ve figured out more of the details that can make an offense hum, such as the best angle to set a screen and the optimal timing for specific passes and cuts.
“People are cutting at the right times. They know when they’re supposed to space, when they’re supposed to cut,” Thibault said before Sunday’s game. “… When Elena gets double-teamed, who’s supposed to cut and in what order and what’s the trigger to do that? … So all of those things. I think our chemistry was probably more ready defensively to start the year, and now we’re starting to figure some things out on offense.”
“We’re figuring out who’s on the floor, what plays we like for that person, [and] how to get different people going,” Atkins said postgame. “So … we’re getting there.”
With limited practice time, the Mystics have gotten there through a combination of film study and walkthroughs. To help the team visualize where defenders will be without tiring out the players, the coaches have often stepped in to play token defense during those walkthroughs. It’s all created a virtuous cycle where, after the players execute correctly in games, they can see it demonstrated again in the game film.
That cohesion, plus a level of focus that Cloud said was the best it had been all season, helped the Mystics stop many of the Liberty’s runs before they could snowball. For instance, New York took its first lead of the game with about six minutes remaining — shortly after Austin had been carried off the court with a strained hip. The game could’ve gotten away from the Mystics then. Instead, they ripped off a 7-2 run to retake the lead.
“I like the way we kept regrouping when they would make little mini runs,” Thibault said. “… Continually through the game — start of the game, start of the third, start of overtime — we had the right mentality and the right attitude.”
For Cloud, one of the most encouraging aspects of the loss was the way she and her teammates adapted on the fly offensively. Thibault has emphasized his desire to collaborate with his veteran roster to solve problems rather than make decisions unilaterally, and on Sunday, Cloud said, the players stepped up with adjustments.
“We realized what was working for us, and we as the players kind of made that decision to go more into ball screens and [New York] couldn’t necessarily guard us off our ball screens,” she explained. “… We’re taking ownership of the way that we’re playing now. And I think everyone is approaching it in a very intentional mindset, a very intentional way. And that’s what we need to be successful.”
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There is more work ahead for the Mystics, including limiting their fouls late in games and cleaning up their rebounding after New York grabbed 14 offensive rebounds. But after some encouraging signs during their winning streak, Sunday’s game proved that the Mystics can be more consistently effective on offense, even against the league’s top teams.
“I’m most proud of us just pushing through it,” Atkins said before Sunday’s game, reflecting on the team’s early inconsistencies. “We kind of talked about it earlier this season, about different words like focus, intentionality, blah, blah, blah. But at the end of the day, you gotta go through the fire sometimes.”
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.