2013 WNBA playoff preview: Atlanta Dream vs. Washington Mystics

When Angel McCoughtry gets going, there's not much an opponent can do to stop her. - USA TODAY Sports

The second-seeded Atlanta Dream will face the third-seeded Washington Mystics in the first round of the 2013 WNBA playoffs.

I suppose we could take this time to look back at everything written about the Washington Mystics, treadmills, and generally failing rebuilding efforts and just sort have one big crow feast.

But we'll just summarize things quickly since the Mystics might have been more discussed over the past year than any WNBA team in site history: it's quite an accomplishment that the Mystics are entering the playoffs as a third seed and maybe even one of the hotter teams in the league depending on where you look.

By edging the Indiana Fever to earn the third seed, they'll face the Atlanta Dream who are sort of (literally) limping their way into the playoffs after a hot start to the season. So we'll start with a question directed toward the Mystics and treadmill talk: what chance do the Mystics have to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in over a decade?

The Washington Mystics

MVP: Ivory Latta, PG (MVP rating: 8.51)

There's an ongoing discussion over at SB Nation's Golden State of Mind about whether Stephen Curry is really a point guard and whether he shoots too much. Not to belabor that argument that will probably continue until the point he retires, but there's similar resolution for Ivory Latta: the Mystics are best with the ball in her hands making decisions. And sometimes, the best decisions for a team on a given possession will be for her to shoot the ball.

Latta finished the season with the second-highest true shooting percentage on the team (53.10%). The highest true shooting percentage belonged to Crystal Langhorne, a post player who can be turnover prone when pressured. Combine Latta's scoring efficiency with a pure point rating of 3.35 and she's the engine that makes this team go (far more so than some of the players who received MVP votes).

Strengths: Offensive rebounding, getting to the free throw line

If you're going to shoot poorly from the field, getting second chance opportunities and going hard to the line isn't a bad idea. The Mystics have improved on the offensive rebounding front since the All-Star break and they finished the season with the second highest free throw rate in the league.

If they were actually to convert those offensive rebounds into second chance points (they finished the season ranked sixth in the league per the Minnesota Lynx stats site), they'd become a difficult team to contend with.

Weaknesses: Shooting efficiency, low synergy rating

To turn a weakness into a strength, the Mystics have held opponents to the second lowest effective field goal percentage for the season (44.9%) so they can get it done defensively. But it's difficult to beat anyone without outshooting them.

For the Mystics, part of the problem is that low synergy rating, that junk stat that reflects how well a team moves the ball to score. The Mystics' rating suggests a team that can fall into the trap of one-on-one ball on occasion and the fact is that they don't have enough players who can create shots efficiently to make that work.

But also noteworthy: the Mystics managed to shoot about 4 threes per game more in the second half than the first half of the season, meaning they're becoming more of a jump shooting team although they hit more.

So the two things are intertwined: if they can move the ball to get easy shots inside for Crystal Langhorne and space the court by knocking down shots on the perimeter - and perhaps using a bit more discretion about which threes they attempt - they'll be in good shape.

Team statistics Pre-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Was

45.91%

34.88%

27%

17.24%

0.27

Opp

44.56%

28.98%

29%

15.36%

0.37

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff:

Was

0.13

0.12

-0.07

-0.16

-2.63

Team statistics Post-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Was

43.53%

26.97%

31%

16.04%

0.31

Opp

45.22%

27.02%

28%

15.99%

0.38

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff:

Was

-0.17

0.00

0.11

0.00

-3.2

Four Factors statistics before and after the All-Star break for the 2013 WNBA regular season.

X-Factor: Tayler Hill, G (MVP: 3.40)

Was rookie Tayler Hill the right draft choice for the Washington Mystics? If she continues to play the way she did at the end of the season, the answer will unequivocally be "yes".

In the last five games, Hill has started to realize the potential: she has averaged 13.2 points per game in September while shooting a scorching 51.7% from the 3-point line. The sum total leaves Hill with a valuable contributions ratio of 0.79, which is right around league average and a significant increase from where she had been during the season (which was near the bottom of the league and out of the All-Rookie discussion).

Regardless of whether her rookie year lived up to expectations, the Mystics could use both her shooting touch and playmaking ability in the playoffs.

Key to victory: Offensive rebounding

The Mystics are going to commit turnovers and struggle to score from the perimeter against the Dream's athletic defenders. But they've won in spite of those weaknesses too. The Dream really need to hit the boards and win the rebounding battle to win this series.

The Dream have been a strong rebounding team for most of their existence, but they've struggled on the front since the All-Star break with Sancho Lyttle missing games. For the Mystics, you'll note that offensive rebounding has turned into a major strength for them as their shooting touch disappeared in the second half of the season. This is likely to be a sloppy series that comes down to their ability to find easy points and rebounding is part of that.

Yet another way to frame things for the Mystics might be that if they shoot well the rebounding will matter a bit less.

Why to root for them: Ivory Latta

If there's a player who appears to be enjoying every single moment of her experience on a basketball court more than Latta, I just haven't seen it this year. It's sports, it's supposed to be fun, and Latta manages to play with exuberance (while also not being a jerk to opponents and/or refs). That and the story of how far this team has come makes them pretty easy to root for.

The Atlanta Dream

MVP: Angel McCoughtry (MVP rating: 12.5)

Although there is a very strong statistical argument for Angel McCoughtry as MVP, a large part of it isn't about the numbers: when McCoughtry decides to turn up the intensity on both ends of the floor, there simply isn't much an opponent can do to stop the Dream.

Defensively, there are few players more disruptive than her whether she's getting in the passing lanes to deflect balls and create easy buckets in transition or rotating over on the weakside to block shots. Offensively, her athleticism and size make her hard to stop when she's going to the basket.

Yet one thing that can't go unnoticed about McCoughtry this season is her role on the Dream as a passer. Although she has averaged a career-high in turnovers (4.06), she's matched that with a career-high average in assists (4.4); 2013 is the first season in her career that her assists have exceeded her turnovers.

When she's scoring efficiently by going to the basket and setting up others with scoring opportunities, there simply aren't many teams who can beat them.

Strengths: Defense, forcing turnovers, second chance points

Really, the Atlanta Dream's strengths haven't changed all that much with the transition to Fred Williams as coach.

They still rely heavily on hustle points: second chance points and points off turnovers. But that makes their subpar offensive rebounding in the second half of the season even more significant: their 27.39% offensive rebounding percentage since the All-Star break is beneath the league average for the 2013 regular season. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that they struggled in the second half of the season: with Sancho Lyttle out, they didn't have an easy solution to make up for the lost rebounding.

But this is the top ranked defense in the league for a reason: their athleticism on the perimeter can make it very hard on opponents to get into their offense.

Weaknesses: Scoring efficiency, turnovers

The Dream's statistical weaknesses really come down to one thing: halfcourt offense.

If a team can control the ball and keep them from getting transition points, the Dream are going to struggle. There's really not much more to that. Having a player like Tiffany Hayes who can get herself to the free throw line for easy buckets is extremely helpful, but they need to find a solution for this in the playoffs if they plan to make a deep run.

Recently, that search for solutions has take the form of going inside to Erika de Souza, who had a team-high 57.66% true shooting percentage this season. Unfortunately, she struggles to finish in traffic occasionally and has a limited repertoire beyond the five-foot range.

Team Pre-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Atl

45.27%

26.94%

32%

15.78%

0.32

Opp

44.28%

28.60%

29%

19.16%

0.15

Weighted

eFg%

fta/fga

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff:

Atl

0.10

-0.03

0.13

0.28

15.68

Team Post-All-Star

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Atl

44.47%

29.78%

27%

16.65%

0.30

Opp

45.65%

31.07%

29%

17.89%

0.27

Weighted

eFg%

fta/fga

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff:

Atl

-0.12

-0.03

-0.06

0.10

-0.78

Four Factors statistics for the 2013 WNBA regular season for the Atlanta Dream.

X-factor: Alex Bentley, PG (MVP: 4.93)

Remember when the Dream were on fire early on in the season and Bentley just couldn't miss from the 3-point line? That was a good thing and they definitely need more of that. And Bentley was 5-for-10 from deep over the last five games in the season.

But something else they need more of is good decision making from the point guard spot and that includes both shot selection and ball movement. Similar to the Mystics, the Dream can become heavily reliant on one-on-one play at times and it doesn't help when their point guards are forcing shots.

Tiffany Hayes is a major factor for the Dream with her ability to drive and get to the line, but they also need to get players like her the ball in spots where she can make plays. They don't need Bentley to have huge scoring performances in this series; they need a point guard who can get the ball moving and pressure the Mystics' ball handlers into turnovers. Bentley has the tools to get that done and this will be a bit of a test for her.

Key to victory: Offensive rebounding

The story for the Dream is the same as the Mystics in a way: their shooting efficiency dropped in the second half of the season. However, that didn't coincide with an increase in offensive rebounding, which is a problem.

If the Dream can't own the offensive boards against the Mystics, they're going to have a hard time winning the series. The Mystics are susceptible to turnovers and that could end up deciding the series, but ultimately this is a team that is going to go through shooting lulls.

Why to root for them: When they're defending and running, they're fun.

The whole "Run with the Dream" thing has gotten them to two WNBA Finals and it can be fun to watch, an Eastern version of fast-paced Phoenix Mercury style that's predicated on defense instead of just firing up shots indiscriminately. When they're not quite clicking, things can get ugly but even then you never know when McCoughtry might turn it on and change the face of the game as a human momentum swing.

Predictions

Key statistical battleground: Shooting efficiency

They've both struggled to shoot in the second half of the season, but they can't both be outshot in this series. The team that can shoot better should have a very good chance of winning this series because both are capable of turning their opponents into terrible shooting teams.

The Mystics might be a good bet on this front because they have to weapons to score efficiently if they need to, especially with Tayler Hill starting to show signs of life from the perimeter.

Winner: Dream in 3

In a matchup between two teams that need to rely on energy, hustle points and finding their shooting stroke, home court advantage becomes a big deal. And having a bona fide MVP candidate doesn't hurt either. Even if the Dream don't play beautifully, that home court advantage could do the trick for them.

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