The Mystics have been through a very difficult stretch over the past couple of weeks that has produced wildly unpredictable results. That unpredictability manifested itself again on Thursday night when they faced off against the perpetually struggling Phoenix Mercury.
The Phoenix backcourt of Diana Tuarasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith torched Washington for 53 points in a 80-75 loss win for the Mercury.
From the opening tip, the game was physical. Just five minutes into the game, Diana Taurasi collided with Ariel Atkins, which left Atkins on the ground writhing in pain.
Of course the big confrontation that made headlines happened late in the second quarter when Myisha Hines-Allen stepped over Sophie Cunningham after contesting a three-point attempt. The two went face-to-face with each other before having to be separated by teammates.
After the game, Mystics head coach Mike Thibbault did not hold back when asked about the heated nature of Thursday’s game.
After the game, Hines-Allen posted a cryptic tweet, possibly referring to her altercation with Cunningham.
Despite the physical nature of the game, the Mystics were leading by as many as 15 points before falling apart in the second half. Despite being 4-2 in their past six games, the Mystics have had a tough time maintaining big leads. Just two weeks ago, they blew a 15-point halftime lead to the Connecticut Sun before falling in overtime.
Phoenix’s zone threw off the rhythm of the Mystics, who shot below 34 percent from the field. Atkins spoke on the difference-makers in the game:
Over the past three games, Elena Delle Donne has averaged 23.7 points on 72 percent true shooting. On Thursday she posted an impressive 19 points and 12 rebounds; however the most astounding part of this recent stretch has been her defense.
Earlier in the season, I coined the term the “Delle Donne dynamic,” which essentially redefined her offensive impact to the Mystics as essential. She raises the ceiling of this team from a middle of the pack team to an elite one when she is on the floor. Typically I am averse to using plus-minus in limited samples; however, in Thursday’s loss to Phoenix, Delle Donne was a +1, which led the team (if you exclude the three minutes Rui Machida played).
Her on/off numbers remain stark like they did last month. The Mystics go from a +10.2 (1st in the WNBA) net rating with her, to a +1.1 (5th) without her, according to pbpstats. And while there are several stars in the league that have a similar positive impact on their teams (A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker, and Breanna Stewart are just a few), very few can say their team remains positive without them on the floor. The Mystics can.
On/off numbers don’t adjust for different lineup situations, which means it can oftentimes misrepresent a player’s true impact; however, a compelling stat in this scenario is how her teammate has been able to anchor the ship in her absences.
Atkins, who was named to the 2022 WNBA All-Star game is the second piece to this interesting Mystics dynamic. She has an even bigger on/off contrast and has been the main offensive engine for Washington this season. Atkins and Delle Donne are a deadly combo and both have the ability to maintain their production without each other. Throw Natasha Cloud into the mix and you have a dangerous trio that can challenge any team defense when the time comes.
We’ve seen Washington take down the Chicago Sky, Las Vegas Aces, and Connecticut Sun multiple times with these three playing together, which indicates that the Mystics can belong in that realm of championship favorites; however, there’s one thing holding them back.
With just over a month left to go in the season, the biggest factor heading into the postseason will be how much help the Mystics can get from their bench; specifically, in the backcourt. Atkins has emerged as one of the best shooters in the league and Cloud has established herself as a top-10 playmaker in the league; however, after that, the situation gets precarious.
The Mystics have struggled mightily in the minutes without Cloud and Atkins this season, posting an abysmal -14.7 net rating. Thursday’s game against Phoenix was an example of this. Cloud played a whopping 37 minutes, which she’s capable of doing; however, is certainly not ideal for a team without much guard depth. The Mystics rely on Shatori Walker-Kimbrough for bench production; however she’s had a down year so far, posting career lows in efficiency across the board.
The ceiling of this Mystics team shows signs of a championship contender; however, they also run the risk of having a postseason collapse if double-digit leads aren’t secure enough to maintain anymore.