After the Mystics’ five-point loss to the Minnesota Lynx last Wednesday, head coach Eric Thibault and point guard Natasha Cloud were fined by the league for criticizing the officials for the free throw disparity between the two teams. The Lynx shot 23 total free throws to the Mystics’ four.
The frustrations certainly are valid. The Mystics have been free-falling as of late, losing seven of their last 10 games. There isn’t a team in the W currently dealing with as many injuries to key players as the Mystics. Since the double-overtime loss to the New York Liberty on June 25, the Mystics have lost Shakira Austin, Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Queen Egbo to injuries. That’s three starters and, in Egbo, one of their most impactful reserves, who they just traded for on July 4.
With the alarming amount of injuries, a few revelations have emerged — both good and bad— that could be an indicator of what to expect from the team moving forward.
The Brittney Sykes agenda
Plenty of positive things have been said about Brittney Sykes of late, but it is still not enough.
Her impact on the team on both ends of the floor has made her — by far — the best player on the team this season. On/off numbers don’t tell the entire story, especially in small samples, but this season, when filtering for low leverage minutes, the Mystics have a +8 net rating in 650 minutes with Sykes on the court and a –6 net rating in the 200 minutes with her on the bench.
Before the myriad of injuries, Sykes played the role of the secondary point guard; however, her role has expanded, even including minutes as a power forward in small-ball lineups. In the Mystics’ loss to the Dallas Wings last week, she actually jumped center before she then was tasked with guarding the 6-foot-4 Satou Sabally.
This brings us back to how the Mystics have had to adjust since the injuries. Washington has been an average rebounding team this year. Trading for Queen Egbo was an effort to improve that, but she suffered an injury less that a minute after she entered the game against Dallas. As a result, the Mystics were absolutely dominated in the paint, outrebounded 60-28.
Sykes has been everything the Mystics could have asked for and more this season. With reports that Atkins, Delle Donne, Austin and Kristi Toliver are getting closer to returning, hopefully the load she has had to carry will begin to lighten.
Better offense or just noise?
For the last two seasons, the biggest issue plaguing the Mystics has been their offense. Holding teams to 80 points and losing was far too common. During last year’s playoff series against the Seattle Storm, those issues manifested in the most painful way possible. The team essentially lost the non-Delle Donne minutes in Game One, which was a golden opportunity to steal a road game. At the beginning of this year, it was looking like more of the same — great defense but terrible offense from a team hoping to remain competitive.
Over the last few weeks the Mystics have seen a jump in offensive efficiency. Prior to the last two games, Washington had posted an offensive rating over 100 in the nine games since the injuries started on June 25. The biggest reason for the spike: a faster pace. Prior to June 25, the Mystics had an average pace of 78.0 possessions per 40 minutes, which was tied for second to last in the league. Since then, that number has increased to 80.7, which is good for third overall.
The Mystics have made an effort to get up more 3-pointers, essentially playing the numbers game and hoping that shooting luck will turn in their favor. It hasn’t been pretty for Washington, but the spacing has improved and the team is playing faster. The biggest question is how the team adjusts to the starters’ imminent return.
Bigger role for Tianna Hawkins
Tianna Hawkins has seen her role on this Mystics team continue to grow. With Queen Egbo’s health still in question ahead of the upcoming two-game series against the Los Angeles Sparks, Hawkins likely will be called on even more. One of Hawkins’ abilities that best complements the approach of the new-look Mystics is her ability to stretch the floor.
Over the last few games, she has started to attempts more shots from beyond the arc, as well as at the rim. That aggressiveness resulted in a 17-point outing against the Atlanta Dream, where she also took seven free throws.
Hawkins has become such a critical part of this team’s rotations because her ability to stretch the floor and catch and shoot not only allows for Cloud and Sykes to attack the basket with more space, but it also has permitted Washington to play two bigs without diminishing returns on offense.
With Egbo’s injury, the Mystics will continue to heavily rely on Hawkins for rebounding and defense. The Wings were a difficult matchup for her, with Sabally and Howard crashing the glass. The Sparks have not been a great rebounding team this year, perhaps helping Hawkins capitalize on her larger role and establish herself as an irreplaceable part of the rotation, even when the starters get healthy.
The Mystics will likely have to go another week or more without their injured players. They sit at 7th place in the WNBA standings and, although they are not yet in danger of dropping out of the playoffs, they are only 3.5 games ahead of the Sparks. This two game series will be huge as Washington hopes to establish a rhythm that can begin a resurgence in the month of August.