Friday night in New York… state
In a game the New York Liberty desperately needed to break a winless streak dating back to last July, the Mystics arrived playing better than in 2018. And despite a notably improved effort from New York, the Mystics found another gear in the fourth quarter, a skill that will serve them well in the playoffs that seem like an eventuality.
Here’s what we learned from Friday night’s 94-85 win over New York:
Trying to go big to stop Elena Delle Donne
There’s this never-ending question in the WNBA, which is precisely how to defend Elena Delle Donne. The Liberty elected to go big, putting Tina Charles on her early, then Reshanda Gray when Charles rested. The physicality had its limits — Delle Donne still got a three in the flow of the offense, and kept attacking the basket, grabbing seven points by the end of the first quarter. But her second quarter was less effective, and she clapped in frustration after working to get around Charles for a layup, which she uncharacteristically missed.
Ultimately, what makes the Mystics so tough in 2019 is that they don’t need Elena Delle Donne to find transcendence to win. (A limitation of the Liberty at this point is they still need it from Tina Charles to do the same.)
Keep an eye on Natasha Cloud’s closeouts
2018 was a revelation for Natasha Cloud in many ways, from her revamped three-point shot to an improved efficiency on both sides of the ball. But a nitpicker could point out her number against spot-up shooters, per Synergy — 1.082 points per possession defensively in 73 possessions, ranking 33rd of 40 WNBA players with at least 70 such possessions last season.
Friday night continued a very different early trend, after she entered the game allowing 0.375 points per possession on spot-ups. Her aggressive closeouts on Kia Nurse, whose bounciness typically gets her clean looks from three, were notable from an ever-improving Cloud.
Not that it slowed her down offensively, either. By the half, she had 17 points. She finished with 26, and New York had no answer for her all night.
The value of LaToya Sanders
Think of this as a chess match between Katie Smith and Mike Thibault. Smith decided that she could not afford to take Charles off of Delle Donne defensively, and it largely worked. But Thibault could, and did, throw Sanders at Charles at the other end, freeing up Delle Donne to roam the paint and block shots. It kept both of them strong for the fourth quarter, and Delle Donne returned to guard Charles in the fourth next to Tianna Hawkins.
To have two versatile bigs like Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman is a luxury. To have a third one capable of changing matchups at both ends like Sanders, who finished with 14 points, is another reason why the Mystics are title contenders.
The look on Katie Smith’s face when Elena Delle Donne missed a rare free throw (she misses about ten a season), only to have a lane violation give her another shot, which she made — well, it was hard not to feel for Katie in that moment.
Shatori Walker-Kimbrough took over early in the fourth quarter. How big a leap has she made this season? She scored 15 points Friday night. She scored 67 all season in 2018.
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