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The Mystics ‘slowed down’ Sabrina Ionescu, but at what cost?

On a night when Sabrina Ionescu didn’t make a single 3-pointer, it was timely scores from teammates that helped the New York Liberty overcome the Washington Mystics 77-65.

Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

On a night when Sabrina Ionescu didn’t make a single 3-pointer out of eight attempts, it was timely scores from Natasha Howard and Han Xu and the New York defense that helped the Liberty overcome the Washington Mystics 77-65.

Two weeks ago when these two teams met, Washington’s drop coverage took away some of New York’s ball movement in exchange for difficult Ionescu jumpers.

However in last night’s game, they adjusted their coverage to take away more of Ionescu’s scoring coming off high pick-and-roll sets and off-ball screens. The Mystics still did include some drop defensive schemes, with their bigs out above the arc ready to contest Ionescu’s shot. However, coach Mike Thibault changed up the strategy a little bit, trapping Ionescu sometimes even as far out as 30 feet away from the basket.

Compare that to the June 3rd game, when Kennedy Burke and Shakira Austin are in the same position here, but both are more focused on dropping back rather than jumping out to contest the shot or trap the ball. Ionescu torched this coverage, going for 24 points on five made threes.

Ionescu burned the Mystics on several occasions from several feet beyond the arc in the first game. Whether in transition or against a set defense, Ionescu’s limitless range makes it difficult for team’s to scheme against the Liberty’s offense.

Compare that to a similar action in last night’s game. Notice how Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins makes a concerted effort to trap Ionescu at the point of attack, but that leaves Natasha Howard open and she can attack the paint virtually uncontested.

This is the “trade-off” coach Thibault was forced to make, where defending out above the perimeter takes away Ionescu’s scoring but opens up playmaking opportunities when she occupies two defenders.

On the pick-and-roll here from the June 3rd game, Myisha Hines-Allen is all the way at the level of the screen, but then is forced to stay with Ionescu and then scramble to recover in time to defend the roller. Elena Delle Donne makes the right play here to prevent the easy basket, but Ionescu makes an excellent pass to a wide open Stefanie Dolson, who is fouled to prevent the layup. The Liberty were in the bonus anyway, so it led to free throws.

In other words, the Mystics focused more on Ionescu’s scoring this game, but that meant she was able to create more offense for her teammates, one of them being Howard, who posted a game-high 27 points on excellent efficiency.

Howard made several big shots in this game on a night when Ionescu’s shot was not falling. Multiple possessions in the game the Mystics actually face-guarded Ionescu above the arc, which opened up room for backdoor cuts.

Marine Johannès on this play observes how Ionescu is being guarded and runs the pick-and-roll to perfection, setting up Howard for an uncontested layup.

So despite a subpar scoring game from Ionescu, the Liberty still got several open looks that the box score won’t reflect.

As for the Mystics, they struggled once again to generate offense without Elena Delle Donne in the lineup. The team is now 3-4 in games without her this year, and the 65 points they scored last night against the Liberty are the fewest they’ve scored in a game all season. This is concerning when you consider how much the Liberty have struggled at times defending teams and maintaining leads.

When asked after the game about the team’s performance, Thibault was not happy.

“We kind of stunk tonight. We had a bunch of people not playing well at all offensively. We weren’t great defensively either. You can’t shoot 37 percent and think you’re going to win very many games on the road.”

The Mystics settled for too many jumpers, which led to them going an entire 6 minutes without a field goal in the third quarter. Both teams struggled shooting from three, with the Mystics in particular going 8-of-29 (27.6 percent) from behind the arc.

Natasha Cloud did her best to carry the offensive load for the Mystics, scoring 17 points to go along with seven assists and five rebounds; however, it was new head coach Sandy Brondello’s second-half adjustments that limited Cloud to just four points and forced her into four turnovers after the break.

The road only gets tougher for the Mystics, as they face off against the league’s best offense in the Connecticut Sun on Sunday. By the numbers, the Sun currently have one of the best offenses in WNBA history.

With an offense that potent, the Mystics will certainly be challenged on the defensive end and will hope to get some more scoring productivity in Sunday’s matchup.