The Mystics impose their dominance on another contender
WASHINGTON — Tuesday night’s game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Washington Mystics was much anticipated, and for good reason: it featured two of the league’s top three teams and two MVP candidates in Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike and Washington’s Elena Delle Donne.
However, the game ended up looking much more like the Mystics’ blowout of then-10th-place New York on Sunday than a potential WNBA Finals preview. The Mystics hit four of their first six threes, prompting a timeout by Sparks coach Derek Fisher, and the Mystics cruised to a 17-point lead at halftime, a 34-point lead at the end of the third quarter, and ultimately a 95-66 win.
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“Washington played better,” Fisher said after the game. “… [They] played faster, harder, more assertive than we did. … They were just better from top to bottom.”
The game was important for both teams’ playoff hopes. With the win, Washington remains in first place and wins the season series against Los Angeles, which is important because head-to-head record is the first tiebreaker if the teams are tied at the end of the regular season. Los Angeles, which entered Tuesday in third place, lost an opportunity to challenge for a top-two seed, which comes with a double bye to the semifinals. “This was a big game for us to kind of separate ourselves in the standings a little bit,” Washington point guard Natasha Cloud said. “… We stepped up to the plate tonight.”
Despite the blowout, Fisher said postgame that he was eager for another crack at the Mystics: “Hopefully we’re in this situation again … playing the Washington Mystics at some point in the postseason.” Tuesday’s game was the last regular-season meeting between the two teams, so we’ll have to wait and see whether a playoff rematch is in the cards. But here are some more immediate takeaways from the game:
The Mystics torched the Sparks’ perimeter defense
In a harbinger of what was to come, Cloud opened the Mystics’ scoring with a 3-pointer. She sank another before Fisher’s first timeout and finished the game with 15 points. Six Mystics players made at least one 3-pointer, and those players combined to shoot 11 for 24 (46%) from long range.
The Sparks entered Tuesday’s game with the league’s second-worst 3-point defense and the Mystics entered with the second-best 3-point shooting percentage and the most made 3-pointers in the league, so the Mystics’ 3-point barrage was somewhat foreseeable. “We caught them in rotations some,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault explained. “… Early, they left [Cloud] and she made them pay, so then they get a little nervous about it and all of a sudden Aerial Powers or Ariel Atkins is open in the corner.” If the Sparks’ game plan was to double-team Delle Donne and risk leaving others open, it worked, to some extent: Delle Donne only took six shots in 24 minutes. (She made four, including two threes, finishing with 14 points.) However, the Mystics showed just how quickly they can bury teams when they are making shots.
Welcome back, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt?
Tuesday’s game was the first game of the series that was played in D.C., so it was a homecoming for Sparks guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who spent the previous six seasons with the Mystics and was born just outside D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia. This season, Ruffin-Pratt is averaging 1.5 more points per game and shooting 5 percentage points better than she did last year. However, she had no points in the Sparks’ first meeting with the Mystics and scored only one point, on a free throw in the first quarter, in Tuesday’s game.
The Mystics also “welcomed” Ruffin-Pratt back by forcing her to guard Delle Donne at one point, when Washington put three forwards on the floor in its “big lineup.” Ruffin-Pratt is a solid defender, but guarding an MVP candidate who is five inches taller is a nearly impossible task, and Fisher had to counter with his own big lineup to avoid the Mystics targeting that mismatch on every possession.
Top to bottom, Washington’s bigs might be the best in the league
On one hand, the Mystics are currently the top team in the league, so it’s not surprising that they have some of the best frontcourt talent the league has to offer. However, entering the season, Washington’s frontcourt got relatively little attention compared to those of teams such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Each of those teams has two current or former All-Star forwards: Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner, A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage, and Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike.
Washington’s frontcourt also has two current or former All-Stars, Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, and its depth arguably matches or exceeds that of every other team. Meesseman and Tianna Hawkins are both strong candidates for the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year, and starting center Latoya Sanders has an equally compelling case for a spot on one of the All-Defense teams. Second-year pro Myisha Hines-Allen hasn’t gotten as many minutes, but she shot 15 for 18 in last year’s playoffs and exploded for 13 points in nine minutes against the Lynx earlier this month. (She also doesn’t lack for confidence: on Tuesday, the 6-2 forward drained a 3-pointer over 6-5 Chiney Ogwumike and then drove to the rim and drew a foul against 6-7 Kalani Brown.) Tuesday’s game pitted all of that talent for the Mystics against Parker, the Ogwumikes, Brown, and Maria Vadeeva for the Sparks, and the Mystics’ five bigs outscored Los Angeles’ five bigs 42-38 and outrebounded them 28-20.
Washington has a strong home-court advantage, but could be dangerous in the playoffs because of their road success
With the win, Washington improved its record to 22-8, equaling its franchise-record 22 regular-season wins from last season with four games left. Playing in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd, the Mystics won their eighth straight home game, which is tied for the league’s second-longest home win streak this season. The Mystics now have the third-best home record in the league at 12-3 and will likely have home court advantage for most or all of the playoffs, so that alone will make Washington a tough draw for anyone in the postseason. However, what really separates Washington from the pack is its road record: at 10-5, the Mystics have been three games better on the road than any other team in the league. With the league’s best teams all tough to beat at home, playoff series can come down to which team can steal a win on the road, and the Mystics are arguably the team that is best equipped to do that.
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