Three Takeaways: Washington Mystics advance after testy playoff win over Dallas Wings

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 6: Elena Delle Donne /

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Less than two weeks after the Dallas Wings came into Washington, D.C. and upset the Washington Mystics in a physical, chippy, down-to-the wire battle, the Mystics were able to get their revenge, this time with the second round of the playoffs on the line.

It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be. The Mystics survived and advanced with an 86-76 victory over the Wings. They will now face either the Connecticut Sun or the New York Liberty in another one-game face-off in the second round of the playoffs.

Elena Delle Donne was the star of the show, as she has been so many times this season, notching 25 points and 11 rebounds; Emma Meesseman added a cool 16 points and 10 rebounds, plus a team-high five assists; while Krystal Thomas nabbed 17 rebounds.

For the Wings, Aerial Powers had a team-high 21 points off of the bench, while Glory Johnson and Skylar Diggins-Smith both added 15 points. Johnson had 14 rebounds, and four players had three assists.

It was a gut-check win for the Mystics, who struggled to find their identity — and win games — down the stretch of the season. And it was a gut punch for a young Wings team still trying to put all of the pieces together. Here are the biggest takeaways:

The Mystics were able to set the tone

Washington has been tentative and uncertain lately, as it tried to figure out its defensive schemes and the best way to distribute the ball offensively with both Meesseman and Delle Donne healthy and on the court together at the same time. That led to a lot of slow starts, missed shots, and back-of-the-heels play in August.

But this game was a different story from the start.

Apparently Kristi Toliver, the only player on the team who has won a WNBA championship, took her teammates aside after their loss to the Minnesota Lynx to end the regular season, and gave them a crash course on what the playoffs were going to be like — they were going to have to be assertive early, set the pace, and really trust each other, especially defensively and off of the offensive boards.

While that’s good advice any time, it’s particularly important in a high-intensity game against a team like the Wings, who like to foul on practically every play and thrive on disrupting rhythm.

The Mystics got off to a hot start, thanks to suffocating defense and driving to the basket, something they’d struggled with in recent games. While the Wings kept coming back from double-digit deficits, at one point tying the game just before halftime, the Mystics did not lose focus like they did in their game a couple of weeks ago, nor did they love their assertiveness on offense. This allowed them to stay in control of the game, and keep a step ahead, even when the game became a foul-fest filled with questionable calls (and questionable non-calls) in the fourth quarter.

The Mystics have to keep up that aggression and energy if they want to advance past the second round on the road.

Make your own second chances

Like we’ve seen far too often this season, the Mystics did not have a great shooting night, finishing the game at 39.7 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from the three. They even struggled from the free-throw line, shooting only 72 percent. (Although, it must be said, Delle Donne was 8-for-8 and Toliver was 7-for-7 from the line.)

But they came out on top anyways mainly thanks to their proficiency off of the offensive glass. The Mystics led the rebounding differential 52-42, and 20 of their rebounds came on the offensive side of the court. They had 25 second-chance points, compared to only 15 for the WIngs. (And, it must be said, that the Wings had zero second-chance points until late in the third quarter.)

Thomas was really the dominant force inside, but Meesseman, Delle Donne, and even Toliver all had offensive boards that kept key possessions alive.

Both the Sun and the LIberty are far superior in the post than the Wings, so the Mystics will have a bigger challenge ahead of them. But they’ve been one of the best rebounding teams in the league all season, and it’s truly the only way they’re going to advance. (Though Toliver did promise that they would all shoot much better next game.)

The Dallas Wings are building something special

he first 15 minutes of this game, everything was going the Mystics. The home team was attacking the basket, playing ferocious defense, and spreading the ball around — basically everything they didn’t do the last time these two played. The (admittedly sparse) D.C. crowd was rocking.

But the Wings absolutely refused to fold.

Behind 11 points in the second quarter alone by Powers, and a stifling defensive charge led by Johnson and Theresa Plaisance, the Wings went on a 13-0 run to end the second quarter and go into halftime tied 34-34. They got down 10 in the third, and still wouldn’t go away.

The Wings are the youngest team in the league, with an average age of 24. Diggins-Smith calls herself the old veteran of the bunch, and not even ironically. Seven players on the team are either rookies or second-year WNBA players. Seven.

And yet, despite losing Powers for a big part of the season due to injury, the Wings still arrived ahead of schedule in many ways and made it to the playoffs. Diggins-Smith was a bit disappointed in her output — she only had 15 points and 3 assists — but she said after the game that it was the most fun she’s ever had in a WNBA season, and that she learned a lot from her very first WNBA playoff game, mainly that she needs to be more aggressive going forward. (Yes, this was Diggins-Smith’s first playoff game, believe it or not. Same goes for Johnson.)

The Wings struggled mightily from beyond the arch, shooting only 2-for-21, and their physical play came back to bite them late in the game when Powers got two technicals in the final two minutes and was kicked out of the game. (To her credit, she didn’t blame the refs in press, even though replays show the second technical was, well, a bit of a reach.) But they kept fighting, and making things happen — while they lost the second-chance points battle, they had an astounding 23 fast-break points, compared to only two for the Mystics.

Coach Fred Williams deserves a lot of credit for getting this team buying into the system. Now, they just need to get someone to play the 5, and they might actually have a shot at advancing in the playoffs next season. This will be a team to be reckoned with next year for sure. Fred Williams deserves a lot of credit.