September 7, 2021 

How hobbled Washington Mystics still have a real chance at the playoffs

Mystics are trying to get hot, healthy just in time

Every team deals with injuries, but the 2021 Washington Mystics have faced an unprecedented amount of bad health and bad luck.

“This has been the worst in 50 years of coaching. This has been the worst I’ve ever been through,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on Saturday, before his team lost to the Minnesota Lynx with two players unavailable and three others on minutes restrictions as they recover from injuries.

“It’s frustrating and it’s hard for everyone, not just me. It’s hard on the staff; it’s hard on all the players. They come to practice every day not knowing who’s going to be there, who can do anything … Some days it’s almost like you just laugh about it and say, ‘Okay, this is typical of our season.’ … It’s a cliché about next person up, but that’s how it’s had to be for us.”

Thibault has had exactly two days this season when all 12 players were available—and that’s still missing forward Alysha Clark, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in March. “We made a big deal of it … and it lasted one game,” Thibault said ruefully.

Only two players have appeared in all 27 games so far, and two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne has played in just three. The preferred starting lineup (sans Clark) of Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen has played just 10 minutes together all season. And the Mystics were down several players all last season, too, so they haven’t had a completely healthy roster since 2019.

The result is that a team that expected to contend for a championship with everyone healthy is now scrapping for one of the final playoff spots. The Mystics (10-17) have five regular-season games left and are currently in ninth place, percentage points behind the New York Liberty (11-18) for the final playoff spot.

“It’s crazy. I mean, we could literally make the playoffs maybe at 12-20, and I wouldn’t be proud of it, but if we’re in, we’ll take it and give ourselves a chance,” Thibault said.

Here’s how the playoff picture could shake out:

  • If the Mystics go 5-0, they make the playoffs.
  • If the Mystics go 4-1 with a win over the Liberty on Sept. 17, they make the playoffs.
  • If the Mystics go 4-1 but lose to the Liberty, they need the Liberty to lose at least one other game OR the Dallas Wings to lose three of their remaining four games.
  • If the Mystics go 3-2, 2-3 or 1-4, they could make the playoffs with significant help from other teams. Most likely, one of the wins would have to be over the Liberty.
  • If the Mystics go 0-5, they are out of the playoffs.
  • If the Mystics make the playoffs, they could earn anywhere from the 6-seed to the 8-seed, depending on how they and other teams finish the regular season.
Three wins might be enough for the Washington Mystics to make the playoffs. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

The Mystics had hoped to solidify their playoff positioning with a hot start after the Olympic break, when the team had an 8-10 record and was set to welcome back several injured players. “You want to be at your peak spot whenever playoffs start coming around,” forward Theresa Plaisance said in mid-August, echoing comments Thibault has made throughout the season about peaking at the right time. “… We’re working towards being the best version of ourselves to finish off this season so we can make a strong push for the playoffs and make a good run in the playoffs. We want to be the best that we can now so when it comes crunch time, we are ready.”

In part due to continued injury woes, the Mystics haven’t gotten there just yet, losing seven of nine games after the break. As a result, they may need a last-minute surge reminiscent of 2020, when they won five of six games to climb from 11th place to eighth in the last 10 days of the regular season.

“You just have to go and play hard and try to get a win,” Charles said on Saturday. “We’re supposed to be fighting for our lives … These next five games, every game matters, every possession matters.”

But flipping a losing streak on its head is always easier said than done, and especially when it comes against other teams that are trying to improve their playoff positioning. The Mystics see a lot to improve heading into a matchup with the fourth-place Seattle Storm on Tuesday.

“In order to make up this playoff push that we keep talking about, we have to be able to stop [teams] defensively,” Hines-Allen said on Aug. 26. “We can’t let teams get comfortable. We can’t let them just get going. So it just all starts on that defensive end.”

For associate head coach Eric Thibault, the bigger concern is on the offensive end, as he believes that a more efficient offense will naturally help his team’s defense. “Playing better and making more shots, making better decisions with the ball, getting some people healthy, I think that’s all probably the recipe,” he said on Monday.

If the Mystics do make the playoffs, that is still only step one of a larger goal. Thibault insisted that they wouldn’t be satisfied with squeaking into the playoffs and losing in the first round, as they did last season on a buzzer-beater. Instead, they want to surprise people and make a postseason run.

As Mike Thibault put it, “If we’re healthy, we’ll be a threat; if we’re not, then just limping in won’t do us any good.” (It would, however, extend his current runs of seven playoff berths in eight seasons as the Mystics head coach and 15 out of 18 total seasons as a WNBA head coach.)

Whatever the outcome, the 2021 Mystics will scrap their way to the finish, just as they’ve done all season. From having only six available players for a game against the Connecticut Sun in June to coming back from an 18-point deficit to beat the Dallas Wings in August, the Mystics have shown a remarkable ability to face adversity head-on and, sometimes, get a win anyway.

“We’ve got to try to do our best to get in,” Eric Thibault said, “because we’ve got players that have put themselves through a lot to try to stay in the hunt.”

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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