The structure of the WNBA playoffs is supposed to reward top-seeded teams by matching them up with a lower seed in the first round. And while the first-round series between the New York Liberty and Washington Mystics series is technically a No. 2 seed-vs.-No. 7 seed matchup... it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
Favorites to advance to the Finals, New York has been given a lot to handle against Washington. An incredibly talented team, the Mystics suffered injury after injury during the regular season, leading them to a 19-21 record and the seventh seed. Yet, they are one of the only teams in the WNBA to beat the New York Liberty twice during the regular season.
So, despite the disparity between the two teams in the WNBA standings, this series was hard to predict. Game 1 in Brooklyn last Friday was full of ups and downs for both teams. Washington started off hot, leading the Liberty 29-23 after the first quarter. From there, the Mystics cooled as the Liberty only kept getting hotter and hotter. While it was Jonquel Jones who took over for New York in the first half, it was Sabrina Ionescu down the stretch. Her seven made 3-pointers tipped the Liberty over the edge for the 90-75 Game 1 win.
What can we expect in Game 2, which is set for Tuesday, Sep. 19 at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)?
Areas of improvement for New York, Washington
There are things that both teams can improve on for Game 2.
The Liberty need to start quicker on offense, and avoid any long offensive droughts, if they are going to keep the Mystics off their backs. They also can avoid a close game in the fourth quarter by starting off stronger in the first half. Additionally, while Ionescu had 29 points and Jones had 20, Breanna Stewart only had 10. Washington also was able to grab more steals than New York, so they need to take care of the basketball and not waste possessions.
While Washington started off hot, they completely lost steam in the second half. It was odd to watch them look completely gassed in the fourth quarter: losing defenders, getting lost on defense, losing the battle on the glass. The Mystics’ highest scorer was Myisha Hines-Allen with 21 points. Natasha Cloud only scored four, Elena Delle Donne had 11, Brittney Sykes had 16 and Ariel Atkins had 14. Not having Shakira Austin due to her ongoing injury definitely was a loss, but Washington needs to find other ways to score. They only shot 22.7 percent from 3 in the entire game compared to New York’s 35.3 percent.
Washington’s goals going into Game 2 should be: keeping Sabrina Ionescu, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones contained; not losing offensive steam after the first half; someone having a big game, whether its Delle Donne, Sykes, Hines-Allen or Cloud.
In Game 1, New York’s nail in the coffin was Ionescu lighting it up from 3 and finishing with 29 points; if one of the Mystics’ players can have that kind of night and make the Liberty scramble to defend, they can even the series. The issue with that, though, is the extensive depth of the Liberty’s roster. You can’t double Jones in the post—she’ll just kick it out to Ionescu or Stewart or whoever else is on the floor. You need to adjust based on who is hot. Yet, even on nights when Stewart only scored 10 points, Betnijah Laney was there to score 19. Courtney Vandersloot still has the most assists in WNBA playoff history.
In Game 1, both coaches relied heavily on their starters and didn’t go to their benches very often. In Game 2, expect both Sandy Brondello and Eric Thibault to give their bench a few more minutes. While coaches may not go too deep into their bench during the playoffs, both of these teams have really talented bench players who could make an impact. Whether it’s to shake it up in late-quarter and late-game situations or to preserve the energy of the starters as the series goes on, these bench players have the ability to shift the momentum of the game.
On the Liberty’s side, Brondello has both Marine Johannés and Kayla Thornton she can depend on for good minutes. Both have been solid for New York all season long—Johannés can absolutely dominate on demand while Thornton’s defensive presence helps quite a lot. Thibault called on Li Meng, Tianna Hawkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in Game 1 for extended minutes.
On the injury front, New York will be missing Han Xu, as she is overseas with a national team commitment. Courtney Vandersloot suffered a minor ankle injury in Monday’s practice, but is set to play in Game 2. On the Mystics side, Kristi Tolliver remains out after she tore her ACL in early September. Shakira Austin was ruled out for both Games 1 and 2 with her ongoing hip injury.
ESPN currently has the Liberty as the favorites to win the game, and therefore the series, with an 80.6 percent chance of success. A win would make New York the second team to clinch their first-round series in a two game sweep, after the Las Vegas Aces sent the Chicago Sky packing in two games on Sunday. On the other hand, if Washington is able to win Game 2, the series would go to a decisive third game on Friday in DC.
Don’t let the stats and oddsmakers make you believe the Liberty are about to cake walk into the second round, though. The Mystics still are completely in this series. They’ll have a chance to prove it Tuesday night in Brooklyn.
Washington Mystics (0-1) vs. New York Liberty (1-0)
When: Tuesday, Sep. 19 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY
How to watch: ESPN
Mystics injury report: Shakira Austin (out; hip), Kristi Toliver (out; knee)
Liberty injury report: Han Xu (out; not with team)