Preview: The Washington Mystics face tough test against Dallas Wings in first round

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18: Skylar Diggins-Smith
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18: Skylar Diggins-Smith /

On Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2), the Washington Mystics (18-16) and Dallas Wings (16-18) will kick off the 2017 WNBA playoffs with their win-or-go home first round game at the Capital One Arena.

While it’s great to see the Mystics back in the playoffs after their abysmal 2016 campaign, the playoff draw couldn’t have turned out much worse for them.

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Less than a month ago, the Mystics were in contention to get the No. 4 seed in the postseason, and the first-round bye that comes with it. But they finished the season losing four of their last five games, and fell all the way to the No. 6 spot, earning them a visit from Dallas, who went an impressive 5-3 in the last month of the season to capture the No. 7 seed.

The Wings have been a thorn in the Mystics’ side all season. The Mystics are 1-2 in their head-to-head, losing the last two in a row, both of which were played in the nation’s capital. So much for home-court advantage.

A little over a week ago, the Wings beat the Mystics 83-78 in a game that was a nail-biter until the final minute. In mid June, the Mystics gave up a 13-point lead to fall to the Wings 87-83. Their lone win over the Wings was a 101-89 triumph in Texas at the beginning of June.

If we’ve learned anything from these match-ups, it’s that it’s going to be an incredibly physical, chippy game that will come down to the wire.

Here’s what the Mystics need to do to turn their luck around against Fred Williams’ squad and soar into the second round, where they will go on the road to face the Connecticut Sun or New York Liberty.

Get the ball to Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, early and often

Yes, yes, I know this sounds obvious. But it can’t be overstated how key the Elena Delle Donne – Emma Meesseman combo is in this game for the Mystics.

Last month when these two teams faced off, Delle Donne and Meesseman combined for 51 of the team’s 83 points off of 35 shots, and after the game, head coach Mike Thibault was upset that they didn’t take even more shots — he thought they should have combined for 45 attempts on the night, that’s just how dominant they were.

It’s no secret that Delle Donne and Meesseman are the best two players on the team, and the duo carries even more of an offensive burden in Tayler Hill’s absence. Due to Meesseman’s month in Belgium with the national team and Delle Donne’s injuries, they actually haven’t had a lot of time together on the court this season, and are just now beginning to develop chemistry, both together, and against the offense as a whole.

Getting both Meesseman and Delle Donne shooting early will put the Wings on their heels defensively, open up shooting opportunities for the rest of the team, and rile up the home crowd quickly, which could rattle a rather young and inexperienced Wings squad.

Contain Glory Johnson

Look, Glory Johnson is a fantastic player, and she’s going to contribute to the game and make a difference, there’s no way to prevent that. But the Mystics have to keep her from absolutely taking over the game, like she did in their second match-up of the season.

Back on June 18 in Washington, D.C., Johnson had one of the best games of her career, exploding for 27 points on 10-for-15 from the field.

Thibault made some adjustments defensively in their latest game, most notably putting forward Asia Taylor in the bench rotation instead of Tianna Hawkins, because he liked the way Taylor matched up with Johnson better. This did help some, but it wasn’t a cure-all — Hawkins is a better rebounder and more of a scoring threat than Taylor, so keeping her on the bench all game was a loss. Johnson was held to nine points, but she did dominate off the boards, with 11 rebounds.

Kristi Toliver, you better step up 

Okay, so, realistically, Johnson will have a solid game, as will Meesseman, Delle Donne, and the Wings’ All-Star point guard, Skylar Diggins-Smith. So then, it comes down to the x-factors. For the Mystics, that is Kristi Toliver, who has struggled mightily against the Wings lately. In the loss to Dallas on August 26, Toliver was 1-for-4 for three points. On June 18, she was 2-for-4 for four points.

In the Mystics’ lone win over the Wings way way back on June 6? Well, on that day Toliver was 6-for-10 for 17 points.

Yeah, big difference.

Toliver is a great player, but she’s struggled at times with the Mystics, particularly because she’s been handling the ball so much with Hill out for the year. She’s best when she can really focus in on her shooting, but that isn’t a luxury she has this season; she needs to do it all.

She especially needs to be a leader, on and off the court, in the playoffs. The Mystics do not have a lot of playoff experience, while Toliver is coming off a championship season with the Sparks. She was brought in to make the big shots in the big moments, and so this is her time to shine.

As for Dallas? Well, they need to get physical

The Wings are the only team in the playoffs that had a worse field-goal percentage than the Mystics this season, but they do  know how to attack the basket and get to the line, and that’s been a weak spot for the Mystics since Hill went out.

The Wings lead the league in free-throw attempts and free-throws made. (The Mystics lead in free-throw percentage, but the Wings aren’t far behind.) They need to use this physicality and attacking, athletic play in order to gain the upper-hand with the Mystics. That will allow them to control pace of the game, put the Mystics into foul trouble, and draw the Mystics to the paint defensively, which will open up the arch for the Wings’ dynamic shooters.