This is the first-round matchup with the highest upset potential: the No. 2 seed New York Liberty vs. the No. 7 seed Washington Mystics. The two teams faced off four times during the regular season, splitting the season series 2-2. The last game of the season ended in dramatic fashion, with Brittney Sykes making a game-winning putback with only 0.5 seconds on the clock.
SLIMMMMMMM @BrittBundlez wins it for the @WashMystics 90-88 at the buzzer against the New York Liberty snapping their 8-game win streak on the last day of the regular szn #MoreThanGame pic.twitter.com/kvdGatwGQE— WNBA (@WNBA) September 10, 2023
After just a few days off, the Mystics and Liberty return to Barclays Center for Game 1, with tipoff at 7:30 pm ET (ESPN 2).
The Mystics entered this season with middle-of-the-pack championship odds. Due to injuries, the team never reached their full potential. The fear was that they would fall out of the playoffs, but the team responded. Headed into their first-round series, the team is almost fully healthy. With the exception of Shakira Austin, everyone from the team’s original starting lineup played in the season finale, including Elena Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins. Austin is not expected to play the first two games of this series after re-aggravating her hip injury.
This means the Mystics will have, at most, a nine-player rotation. Considering the stakes of this matchup, it is possible that head coach Eric Thibault shortens the rotation.
Meanwhile, the Liberty were relatively healthy for the majority for the season. Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones all played at least 36 games this season; four of them played 39 of 40 games. New York head coach Sandy Brondello has a similarly difficult decision to make about her rotation. The Liberty played eight in their season finale, but it’s possible we see a six- or seven-player rotation from New York in this series.
How can the Mystics win?
The biggest question for Washington in this series: Can they score enough? We know the defensive potential of this team, but, as we saw in last season’s playoffs, the inability to score doomed them, despite Delle Donne’s incredible Game 1 performance against the Seattle Storm.
Washington certainly will look to attack Sabrina Ionescu. During the season series they made a living capitalizing off her defensive mistakes. Whether it was in the post or on the perimeter, Washington was able to create a ton of open shots hunting the Liberty guards. If they again are able to have success doing so, Washington has a great chance at pulling off the upset. Brittney Sykes has the potential to have an incredible series. Not only is she a matchup problem for both Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot, but her impact on the defensive end could make this a series for the ages.
TONIGHT: I caught up with Mystics guard Brittney Sykes after logging one of the best seasons of her career and I asked her how she's been able to grow her offensive game during her first year in Washington.— Brandy Flores (@_brandyflores) September 12, 2023
Tune it at 11PM on @DCNewsNow pic.twitter.com/C05wAMPxoO
Washington will have to find a way to attack Jonquel Jones in the pick and roll. The Mystics’ guards must use their quickness to dictate the offense. New York likely will have Betnijah Laney guarding Sykes and Breanna Stewart guarding Delle Donne, which means Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins have to attack in pick-and-roll actions. Cloud had a big game on Sunday, finishing with 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting while making two 3s. Keeping the 3-point battle close will be important for Washington. The Liberty are an amazing 3-point shooting team, averaging almost two more made 3s per game than the next best team. If Ionescu and Marine Johannés are not contained around ball screens, the Liberty should win this series in two games.
What a fun possession, Liberty's ball movement vs. Mystics rotations. pic.twitter.com/lBIY1VFAer— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) September 10, 2023
The Myisha Hines-Allen minutes have been rough for Washington this year. It’s been a down year for her, both due to her coming off an injury and the many injuries in the rotation. But she will be called upon for big minutes in this series. Hines-Allen has playoff experience and her ability to make passes to Washington’s cutting guards will be crucial in this series. She also will be Washington’s center for most of this series, which is scary because she is undersized. Hines-Allen is the most-underrated key piece in this series; if she can bother Jonquel Jones even a little bit, that will be a massive win for Washington.
I anticipate this being an extremely close series. The Mystics matchup very well with the Liberty and have the pieces to exploit New York’s weaknesses. To pull of the upset, Washington will need to keep up with New York’s offense and/or limit the Liberty’s 3-point shooting.
This has the potential to be the most exciting first-round series of the WNBA playoffs.
Washington Mystics (0-0) vs. New York Liberty (0-0)
When: Friday, Sep. 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY
How to watch: ESPN 2
Mystics injury report: Shakira Austin (out; hip), Kristi Toliver (out; knee)
Liberty injury report: Han Xu (out; not with team)