Depleted Mystics found new star and advanced to playoffs for title defense

In the “Wubble,” the WNBA’s bubble, the Washington Mystics did wobble, but now the defending champions have made the playoffs and can continue their title defense.

Yes, the Mystics did leave it late, and only secured a postseason spot with a win over Atlanta on Sunday in the final game of the regular season. With a 9-13 record, the Mystics were the eighth and final team to make the playoffs, and Tuesday night they will play the Phoenix Mercury in a single-elimination game

It is truly remarkable that Mystics and playoffs are in the same sentence. When the WNBA started its season in late July with all 12 teams playing at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the Mystics won their first three games. But Mystics head coach Mike Thibault cautioned, at the time, it was not going to be easy.

Thibault knew it would be a challenge, because key players, including reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles, LaToya Sanders and Natasha Cloud, were missing the season for health and personal reasons. Six games into the campaign, second-leading scorer Aerial Powers had to exit Bradenton after suffering a hamstring injury.

With only four players left from last year’s championship team, the Mystics were in trouble, and that quick 3-0 start was followed by an equally quick fade. In August, the Mystics failed to win a single game and entered September and the final stretch of the season with losses in 12 of 13 games.

“You know, it would have been really easy for a lot of teams to say the heck with it,” said Thibault. “We’re in this bubble, and we just want to go home. This is a lost season, and we’re done. And yet the opposite happened. They had pride. They wanted to win a game to get ourselves going again and to play as hard as we could, kind of our Mystics standard, and do everything we could to right the ship, and they did that.”

Cue the dramatic music, the Mystics stayed together, and even though they lost plenty of games and players, they didn’t lose their way or championship pedigree. The Mystics closed the regular season by winning five of their final six games in a 10-day span, and their only loss during that stretch was in overtime to Dallas.

To secure a playoff spot with so many players on the sideline, the Mystics needed a breakout season from someone. That someone turned out to by forward Myisha Hines-Allen. She was drafted by the Mystics in the second round in 2018 from the University of Louisville, but in her first two seasons with the team, she only started one game and averaged between two and four points per game.

Even with Delle Donne and Charles not playing, there was no way to predict, or expect then, that Hines-Allen would have such an impact on the Mystics 2020 season. At 17 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, Hines-Allen is the Mystics leading scorer and rebounder and is a top contender for the league’s most-improved player.

Hines-Allen comes from a sporting family. Hines-Allen’s younger brother Josh was selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and now is the Jaguars’ starting left defensive end, and a team captain. With the Mystics, Myisha Hines-Allen has been showing leadership qualities, and she has improved on the court with hard work (and not just having good athletic genes).

“Like Draymond Green did when he came into the NBA with the Warriors, he was a second-round pick like Myisha, and didn’t make a huge impact the first year or two, but found a way to reinvent himself,” said Thibault. “She’s had to do that. She’s had to become a ballhandler, become a 3-point shooter as well a post-up player. So now you can move her all over the court and she has an impact every day at both ends of the court.”

To secure a playoff spot, it was also important that the Mystics still had center Emma Meesseman. Remember, Meesseman missed the 2019 season playing for the Belgian national team, and her value to the team was highlighted when the Mystics finished runner-up that year to the Seattle Storm.

Now, the challenge for the Mystics on Tuesday night is a Phoenix Mercury team that enters the postseason with seven wins in its last nine games. Due to personal reasons, star Brittney Griner is not with the Mercury, but still the team is loaded with talent, including Skylar Diggins-Smith, Bria Hartley and Diana Taurasi.

“It starts with Taurasi,” said Thibault. “Diana Taurasi might be best player in the history of our league. She and Skylar Diggins are averaging about 42 points a game between them over their last seven games.

Their interior defense, even though Griner left, Brianna Turner from Notre Dame has been an anchor for them. You can’t give them second shots, and you better get back in transition. Because if you don’t have a good offensive possession, they are going to get out and run. They’re going to attack the basket and they have shooters.”

The Mystics lost both regular season meetings against the Mercury, and Tuesday, it literally is win or go home. Thibault would prefer a multiple-game playoff series, but he takes comfort in knowing his Mystics are used to dealing with pressure.

“I think the thing that helps us is that we’ve been kind of going through single-elimination games, in a way, for about a week now,” said Thibault. “We had to win five-out-of-six games just to get in the playoffs. And so I think that will help us mentality-wise, that we’ve already played some big games while Phoenix has been sitting for a couple days.”

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