There's a reason the Washington Mystics have been mockingly called the "Mystakes" by fans who have suffered through years of disappointment.
Excluding the three expansion teams since 2006, the Mystics' 40% franchise winning percentage (through 2009) is the lowest of any active WNBA franchise. In other words, the Mystics haven't exactly had a tradition of excellence since being established in 1998. So one of the first tasks of general manager Angela Taylor when she accepted the job late in 2008 was to transform the struggling franchise from a culture of "Mystakes" to what she described as a "culture of winning".
"That's the reason why we're here: we want to be WNBA champions," said Taylor in a March interview with Swish Appeal. "From day one -- from the first meeting we had with our team to the first day of practice -- there was no doubt that the players knew what it was about: we're going to have fun, we're going to enjoy each other's company, but ultimately each player had to get better as individuals, we had to get better as a staff, and our goal was to win a WNBA championship."
After making the playoffs for the first time in three years in Taylor's first season, clinching a second consecutive playoff berth yesterday -- also the first-ever consecutive playoff appearances -- with their franchise-record 19th win is undoubtedly a sign of progress in the process of building that "culture of winning". As much as that record win is a significant milestone, there has to be some symbolic significance to the way they defeated the Seattle Storm, the league's best team that had already clinched home court advantage throughout the playoffs against the Atlanta Dream last Tuesday.
Although the Storm had already been redistributing minutes in their rotation in order to rest their starters for the playoffs during their three-game Eastern Conference swing, the Mystics not only came prepared to take the Storm's best shot but also showed the kind of poise that one might expect from a culture of winning.
Key stat: turnover percentage
The fourth quarter wasn't exactly the Mystics best quarter overall. But after turning a four point halftime deficit into a six point lead at the end of three, the Mystics were faced with a task that has been daunting for some opponents -- holding a lead in the fourth quarter against the Storm. So what's most impressive about the Mystics' performance during a tense fourth quarter is that they demonstrated the poise to not commit any turnovers.
That the Mystics didn't commit a fourth quarter turnover is significant against any team, but especially against an obviously competitive Storm team that prides itself on defensive intensity and is usually the team that remains poised, especially when facing fourth quarter deficits. Meanwhile the Mystics forced the Storm into 11 second half turnovers, including 8 in the third quarter for a turnover percentage of 40.81%. Although a number of the Storm's third quarter turnovers were dead ball turnovers, the Mystics' poise down the stretch is a large part of what allowed them to clinch get that 19th win.
Mystics statistical MVP: Monique Currie
Of course, Currie's performance was no small part of the victory either. Going 5-7 from the three point line and 6-6 from the free throw line (for a excellent free throw rate of 46.15%), Currie had a true shooting percentage of 79.92%, which is outstanding for any perimeter player. While scoring was her primary contribution, she also added four steals and a block demonstrating her defensive ability on the wing as well.
In a season perhaps best characterized by surprisingly franchise-record progress even without All-Star guard Alana Beard, the surprising improvement of Currie might end up being the personification of the franchise's turnaround. After post Crystal Langhorne won the Most Improved Player award last year and with Currie in the conversation for the award this year, the internal development of players has been as much a part of this transition to a culture of winning as anything else.
Key Player: Chastity Melvin
Yet despite the record demonstrating success, the Mystics haven't necessarily won beautifully or with gaudy numbers. What's striking about watching the Mystics play is that they are arguably one of the scrappiest and toughest teams in the league that manages to find a way to win with defense (2nd in the league in opponents' points per possession) and rebounding (2nd in total rebounding percentage and 3rd in offensive rebounding percentage).
Against the Storm, it was Chastity Melvin who seemed to exuded that gritty style of play, coming up with big defensive plays as well as a game high four offensive rebounds for an offensive rebounding percentage of 21.32%. As seems to be the case with the Mystics throughout the season, she didn't exactly put up the biggest numbers but her strong play in the post and smaller contributions were significant.
Storm statistical MVP: Sue BIrd
Yet despite a strong performance down the stretch for the Mystics, it was the supposedly coasting Storm that played better in the first half to build a four point lead. A large part of that was the play of point guard Sue Bird who picked up 5 of her 7 assists in the first half with and finished with an outstanding assist ratio of 53.84% with a turnover percentage of 7.69% that led to an outstanding pure point rating of 14.66. She was also amazingly efficient as a scorer with her 4-4 three point shooting leading to one of those bizarre true shooting percentages: 120%. Overall, it's difficult to imagine a much more efficient offensive performance from a point guard.
Nevertheless, the Storm's altered rotation and the decision to pull Bird and center Lauren Jackson from an eight point game with just under three minutes to play shouldn't take away from the fact that the Mystics put forth a solid performance against a solid team, well-suited for a franchise-record 19th win for a franchise on the rise and more than deserving of the ovation their loyal fans gave them.
Playoff success has to factor into how we evaluate whether Taylor, coach Julie Plank, and owner Sheila Johnson have truly turned this franchise around. But there is undeniably a new poise and toughness to this team that certainly seems to suggest that a culture of winning is definitely taking hold even if it hasn't reached its full potential.