With just over two weeks left in the regular season, the Washington Mystics are in an interesting situation with the playoffs looming. As currently constructed, they are fighting with Seattle for the 4th and 5th spot with the potential to climb into 3rd in the final days of the regular season.
So after declaring themselves to be ramping up into playoff mode last weekend, Tuesday’s matchup with the vaunted Las Vegas Aces was the ultimate test of that declaration. The Aces, led by MVP favorite A’ja Wilson are one game out of the top spot in the standings, but have looked like the best team all year. However, the Mystics defense was brilliant once again, rendering the league’s best offense virtually ineffective at certain points, prevailing over the Aces 83-73.
With this win, Washington has swept the season series against Las Vegas 3-0, reaffirming the belief that when this team is healthy, they can challenge any team.
The Las Vegas Aces are the number one team in the WNBA in pace and points per possession off a missed FG. They like to play fast, and Washington held them to zero fast break points in Tuesday’s showdown.
When asked how they were able to neutralize such an integral part of the Aces offense, head coach Mike Thibault put it simply, “Run like hell getting back!”
The first thing on the Mystics’ scouting report was to sprint back in transition and find a matchup, regardless of who it is. It was a decision that effectively limited their offensive rebounding capabilities, but the sacrifice was worth it. In the very first matchup against Las Vegas this season, Washington held them to 2 points in transition.
Mystics star Elena Delle Donne had just 5 points, but was very effective on the defensive end and with her playmaking.
“Elena Delle Donne was tired, didn’t have it as far as her legs… and yet for all of that she was still a plus-23, she has the biggest plus-minus on the court, because she facilitated everybody else tonight,” Thibault said. “She saw all of the double teams, she found people, she had 11 rebounds and five assists and Myisha [Hines-Allen] gets wide open threes because they put so much attention on Elena and she’s unselfish, doesn’t force it, and gives it up.”
It was also the Mystics bench that helped Washington break through in the second half, outscoring Vegas’ bench 25-5. Rui Machida had five points and two assists in limited minutes, which really helped change the course of the game in Washington’s favor. Myisha Hines-Allen also came in off the bench and hit two big threes.
Shakira Austin had one of her best performances of the season, tallying 15 points and 8 rebounds, while guarding A’ja Wilson for extended periods throughout the game.
“She had to take more minutes on A’ja Wilson than we probably planned,” Thibualt admitted, “but she used her length to good effect for most of the game.”
Austin was part of the reason why Vegas did not have many paint points in the game or second chance opportunities (only three offensive rebounds).
Natasha Cloud, who scored a team-high 16 points and added nine assists, was proud of Austin’s two-way performance.
“Shakira stepped up huge for us today, for the entirety of the game and really set the tone.”
After Tuesday’s game, Austin admitted that she doesn’t feel like a rookie anymore. Her growth as a player over the course of the season has been fun to watch and the way she responded to having to guard the MVP frontrunner was a reflection of that.
As for the team, the 25 assists were a team high this season, and with a crucial game against the Chicago Sky looming, conquering Tuesday’s test was a good sign headed into the final stretch of the season. Natasha Cloud can certainly sense it.
“We are starting to gel, we’re starting to click, and we’re starting to get really [expletive] scary, and we’re peaking at the right time.”