August 22, 2021 

The Washington Mystics’ playoff hopes — and bigger aspirations — come down to consistency

The Mystics played great in three straight first halves against Las Vegas and Phoenix — but then the wheels fell off

During their three-game road trip last week, the Washington Mystics were consistently inconsistent. Their first halves were excellent, building leads as large as 21 points on Aug. 15 against the Las Vegas Aces, but their second halves were troublesome enough to send them home with three losses.

“[In the] first half, we look like a championship team and then second half, I’m not really sure,” center Tina Charles said after another loss to Las Vegas on Aug. 17.

“I feel like right now the narrative is, ‘Man, the Mystics, they’re good—or they can be good—but something’s just missing,’” added guard Ariel Atkins.

The Mystics don’t have much time to find their stride, as they sit in tenth place with an 8-13 record entering Sunday’s game against the defending champion Seattle Storm. That game will kick off a homestand with five games in 10 days, and it will be crucial for the Mystics to get some wins in order to get back into playoff contention.

What were the biggest problems on the road trip?

In all three games — two against Las Vegas and one against Phoenix — the Mystics appeared to take control early. They had a 21-point lead against Las Vegas with 2:29 left in the second quarter on Aug. 15, but they were outscored 29-14 in the fourth quarter and lost 84-83. They took an eight-point halftime lead two nights later, only to be outscored 52-34 in the second half and lose 93-83. And against Phoenix on Aug. 19, the Mystics led by 12 early in the second quarter but were outscored 38-20 in the second half and lost 77-64.

In the first game against Las Vegas, foul trouble was an obvious culprit: The Mystics committed 24 fouls to the Aces’ 13 and gave Las Vegas 21 free-throw attempts, more than double the Mystics’ nine.

“The fouling was terrible,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said, directing his disappointment toward his team and not the officiating. “… We’ve preached all week that if you want to beat this team, the free throw difference can’t be a big disparity, and of course it was.”

All those free throws gave the Mystics little opportunity to run in transition and limited the Mystics’ offensive flow, especially when combined with the Aces’ defensive pressure. The Mystics’ point totals decreased every quarter, from 27 in the first quarter to 14 in the fourth. Charles, the WNBA’s leading scorer at 25.7 points per game, took just five shots in the second half compared to 12 in the first as the Aces double-teamed her after halftime.

The Mystics closed the gap in fouls in the next game between the two teams on Aug. 17, though they did it more by drawing fouls on the Aces than by reducing their own fouling. But the offense still couldn’t keep pace. Charles (30 points) and Atkins (24 points) were the Mystics’ two main scorers—none of their teammates had more than seven points—whereas the Aces had five players in double figures. Charles had 23 first-half points before the Aces again double-teamed her in the second half, and the Mystics didn’t respond well enough.

“We missed some opportunities to get her the ball and I think we weren’t patient enough to try to get it there sometimes, including her,” Thibault said. “We ended up running a lot of pick-and-rolls where I thought we could have got some post-ups for her, but [the Aces] upped their defensive pressure like they’ve done, and we have to get better at reacting to teams adjusting in the second half.”

When the Aces took away Charles on the inside, the Mystics’ outside shooting also disappeared. The Mystics shot just 1-for-13 (7.7%) from 3-point range in the second half, well below their 32.5% rate for the season.

Those shooting woes continued against Phoenix, as the Mystics’ shooting percentages from the field declined from 40% in the first half to 14.3% in the second. They had just five field goals in the entire second half, and no Mystics starter made a field goal in the fourth quarter.

“We have a lot of people playing some big minutes, and we had no legs to shoot the ball tonight. We just ran out of gas,” Thibault said. “… We had a chance if we could make shots tonight, put the pressure on them, but we just didn’t.”

The Mystics sorely needed a third scorer against the Mercury, as they didn’t have enough offense to keep pace on a night when Atkins’ shots weren’t falling. Charles had 17 points and forward Myisha Hines-Allen had 11, but Atkins had just seven on 2-of-16 shooting. Hines-Allen is expected to be that third scorer alongside Charles and Atkins, but she is still under a minutes restriction as she recovers from a knee injury, so others need to step up as well.

The players were naturally frustrated by their second-half struggles, and they struggled to explain the large statistical differences between the two halves. “If I knew the answer, it would have fixed it,” Atkins said wryly.

But they dismissed fatigue as an excuse, saying essentially that it’s their job as professional athletes to overcome that. Instead, Charles said that the Mystics need to be more disciplined when they’re facing adversity, and Atkins said that the team isn’t showing “the same energy or grit” in the second half.

“We’re just not playing very smart in the second half,” point guard Leilani Mitchell added. “Both on offense and defense, we’re having a lot of lapses … When you get tired, you have to really lock in mentally and concentrate even more, and at times I think we just give into it.”

The Washington Mystics huddle during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut on May 28, 2021. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

What’s behind the Mystics’ first-half successes?

Despite the final scores and the frustration of letting leads slip away, Thibault and the players were pleased with many aspects of their performance on the road. Mitchell said that the Mystics’ first halves this week were “a lot better” than their overall play in the first half of the season, so they can be a serious playoff threat if they clean up their second halves.

“I took a lot of good things away from that game,” Thibault said after the Aug. 15 loss to the Aces. “I mean, we played a team that’s tied for first [place] on their court and had a chance to win, one-possession game at the end. And so those are things we can build on.”

The defense stood out on Aug. 15 against Las Vegas, as the Aces had zero fast break points in the game and Aces stars A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage had only 18 points combined entering the fourth quarter. Olympian Chelsea Gray, who hit the game-winning shot, had just eight points.

“A lot of our buckets in the first half were coming off defensive stops,” Hines-Allen said. “… [We were] just helping each other, like guards helping posts, posts helping guards. Getting our hands on a lot of a lot of passes—passes out, passes in. Rebounding the ball collectively.”

That continued to some extent on Aug. 17, as the Mystics had trouble containing the Aces’ Kelsey Plum but did score 17 points off Las Vegas turnovers, including 11 in the first half. And Thibault wasn’t upset with the defense against Phoenix, either, as his team gave up 20 first-half points to 6’9 Brittney Griner but just 19 to the rest of the team. They actually held Phoenix to one fewer point in the second half than in the first, which could well have been enough to win on an average shooting night for the Mystics.

On the offensive end, it was a good sign that Atkins averaged 18 shots per game on the road trip, well above her season average of 12.7 entering those games. Earlier in her career, she was more likely to pass up some open shots, but she is increasingly recognizing that her team needs her to hunt shots, even if they don’t always go in.

“[I was] just trying to be aggressive,” she said on Aug. 17. “That’s my biggest thing right now is how do I help my team win games, and I think our team looks different when I’m more aggressive from the jump versus being passive with the ball.”

What it means for the team’s final 11 games

The three losses didn’t dent the Mystics’ confidence, but they did show where the team needs to improve in order to contend for a championship. Thibault put it simply after the second game against the Aces: “We’re not as good as them right now.”

“If anything, it gets us frustrated with ourselves a little bit, but I think it’s not a bad frustration,” Atkins said on Aug. 15. “I think it’s a good frustration. I think we realized what we’re capable of. We saw it in action. So how do we figure out how to get it done for four quarters is our biggest thing.”

This skid is reminiscent of the Mystics’ 2020 season, when they lost 12 of 13 games in the middle of the season but won five of their final six games to claim the final playoff spot. Hines-Allen and Mitchell had a conversation about that after the Phoenix game, and while Hines-Allen said the situations weren’t identical, last year’s experience shows that it’s possible.

“We have to have a sense of urgency every time we step foot on the court,” she said, “but at the same time, what Coach was saying in the locker room also is, it’s not the end of the world. We have more games. We’re capable of playing how we play. Like, our first halves look amazing. And then we go to shambles in the second half—we start playing stagnant, we start holding the ball, we don’t move it. It’s little things in the second half that make a team go on a run. So, I mean, right now it’s just like, we got to win some games.”

One reason to believe that the Mystics will right the ship is that two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne is expected to make her season debut against Seattle. She hasn’t played since 2019 because of two back surgeries, but the Mystics have all gushed about how good she has looked in practice this month. It’s unreasonable to expect her to be in MVP form, and she will likely be on a minutes restriction for the rest of the season, but she can still make an outsized impact because of how she helps her teammates stay confident and composed.

“E in general has a calming presence … She just looks at the defense and does what she wants to do,” forward Erica McCall said in June. “And so just being her calming presence when we’re super rushed on the court and like, we’re down by nine and E’s like, ‘Hey everyone, calm down. It’s all right, we’re going to come back, just take your time. We’re going to do it possession by possession.’ And so that’s what I would look to E for, for that calming presence … and to calm everyone else down so that we can focus on what we’d focused on.”

That grounding from Delle Donne, even if she doesn’t make a single shot, could be crucial to a Mystics team that has struggled to lock in and play smart in the second half. And if fatigue is a factor, as Thibault suggested, an extra player in the lineup helps there, too.

Between the Mystics’ recent first-half performances, the hope of Delle Donne’s return and early-season wins over teams like Seattle and Minnesota, the Mystics have shown glimpses of their potential throughout the season. Whether they can play full games at that level for the rest of the regular season will determine whether they are remembered as late bloomers with real championship aspirations or as a team that had potential but was consistently inconsistent.

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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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