Mystics losses show their potential, but also how far they must go

Byrum: What the Mystics' losses show about Washington originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The WNBA schedule will read that the Washington Mystics lost both games of a back-to-back series against the Las Vegas Aces following the Olympic break. However, both teams know that the 0-2 record is not indicative of how close the Mystics were to the Aces at the Michelob ULTRA Arena during a three-day stretch.

Take away the Mystics’ two worst quarters of the series and they outscored the Aces by 14 points. A double-digit margin over, currently, the best team in the WNBA.

It’s just as the Mystics preached all last week, now healthy, they have the tools to compete for the championship. Just in these first two games of the second half of the season, it wasn’t seen across four quarters.

“We’re not as good as [the Aces] right now,” head coach Mike Thibault said following the second loss. “We’re playing two to three quarters of good basketball… There’s no simple answer right now, that’s why they’re tied for first.”

At this point in the season, a lapse for a single quarter cannot be the difference between a win and a loss for the Mystics. Entering the week, Washington only had 14 opportunities to gather wins for the remainder of the season. Now, it’s down to only 12 and Washington is a half game out of the playoffs at an 8-12 record.

Especially considering at points in both contests the game seemed in control, the losses hurt even more. Desperation and frustration are starting to creep in for a team that wants to rise to the league’s elite.

“We need to be more locked in, we need to be more engaged, we got to want it more,” Tina Charles said. “It’s not like we don’t have the pieces to do it or the people who can do it. I don’t know what to say, it’s very disappointing at this point, a little bit. First half we look like a championship team and then second half, I’m not very sure.”

There are many things one could point to for why it has unraveled. Issues that are ranging far beyond the fact the Mystics, right now, don’t have the personnel to slow down two of the most dominant post players in the league at the same time with A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage. They both combined for 71 of the Aces’ 177 points in the two games.

Charles points to constant discipline and fatigue being an issue after her ninth 30-point game of the season. For Ariel Atkins, she sees it as diminishing energy and grit. In some areas, they could be seen as related; either way the time is now to find it.

“You don’t really get the opportunity to just be like, ‘oh, we’ll fix it next game. Oh we’ll fix it next game, oh we’ll fix it next game,’ and before you know it the season’s over and you don’t have a playoff spot,” Atkins said. “So, it’s really important that we try to figure out what [discipline] means for us because it can mean different things for everybody.”

The good news is the fact they aren’t playing Vegas for their remaining 12 games. Every team can reasonably be frustrated by their brand of basketball. Seven games, though, are against teams sitting fourth through eighth in the standings. If the Mystics are ready to make that championship jump this season, those are the games that will prove most vital.

Also looking past the two drop-offs, Washington still led for significant portions of each game against the No. 1 team in the league. Not every team in the WNBA can overcome adversity like the Aces did. Sometimes a combined 54 points by Charles and Atkins as seen in the second game would be enough.

“I feel like right now the narrative is, ‘man the Mystics are good, or they can be good, but something’s just missing,’ and that’s on us to figure out,” Atkins said.

Games like these prove exactly that the Mystics can become a dangerous championship threat. Even after the first loss, Atkins reiterated over and over again that – for at least the first three quarters – it displayed that this version of Mystics are what they are capable of even without Elena Delle Donne.

Moral victories, however, are meaningless at this point in the season. Washington needs to win games. Under the new format created in 2016, only one team has made the WNBA Finals who didn’t receive a top-two seed and the double bye. None have won a championship. If wins are on the table, the Mystics can’t pass up those chances to gain ground and they come by winning all four quarters.

“We don’t need to worry about nothing else but winning games,” Atkins said.

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