Wizards

Mystics face tipping point with playoffs approaching

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Mystics face tipping point with playoffs approaching

Let's start with the good news: With a 15-11 regular season record, the Washington Mystics are poised to reach the WNBA playoffs for a third straight season under coach/general manager Mike Thibault.

Now, noting the "good news" in such a manner means mention of something not quite so pleasant is coming and here goes. The Mystics dropped back to back games against Elena Delle Donne and the Sky, which dropped Washington behind Chicago in the East standings. With eight games remaining on their schedule, the Mystics are in the fourth and final playoff spot, three games behind first place New York Liberty.

We can swing this back toward good information by noting Washington is a comfortable 3.5 games ahead of Connecticut and note the skidding Sun have lost five straight.

The Mystics haven't finished higher than the third in the East since winning the conference in 2010. The organization has lost six straight playoff series with the last win coming in 2002. Having homecourt advantage in the best-of-3 opening round series would be helpful, but now they must climb past the Sky and Indiana Fever for the privilege.

The thing is - here comes the positive talk again - this team can do it.

Before losing two straight to the Sky, the Mystics defeated the Western Conference leading Minnesota Lynx in yet another home-and-home series including a 79-61 rout on the road.

Washington is one of top defensive teams in the league, holding opponents to 40 percent shooting from the field. Offensively, Thibault's push-the-pace approach opens the court for shooters. The Mystics, one of the most efficient teams, ranks second in the league in 3-point shooting.

All-Stars Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson epitomize the youth movement under Thibault. Veterans Ivory Latta and Kara Lawson are the experienced options and among the level-headed voices in the locker room. That last attribute is a needed one now considering each of the losses to the Sky came by two points.

“For me, you just understand that this is the way the league works. You never feel so great about yourself after wins or too bad about yourself after losses," said Lawson after scoring a team-high 19 points in Sunday' 66-64 home loss. "There are opportunities for us to improve and things that we could’ve done better. In an ideal world for us, we’re in the playoffs and maybe we’re facing them again. We have to learn from this and get better but it’s tough. The way we lost both of these games you feel like you’re right there and you have an opportunity to win. It could very easily be 2-0 us, that’s I think what makes it tough to swallow.”

Expect more opportunities for wins and not just this season. Few in town may notice, but those around the league recognize the impressive group of young talent assembled by Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history. More than half the roster are players born in the 1990's and these kids can play.

The Belgium-born Meesseman, the youngest player on the team (22), is a mid-range shooting savant and the team's leading rebounder. Dolson, a personality-plus center who led Connecticut to a national championship in 2014, is one of the most improved players in the league. Both are averaging over 11 points six rebounds while shooting at least 52 percent from the field. Rookie Natasha Cloud, one of the most athletically fluid players in the league, went from a second-round pick to starting more than half the season thanks to her defensive prowess. 

The East is wide open this season and the Mystics have the goods to make some noise in the postseason. That is, assuming the two-game skid doesn't turn into a major slide. Washington hosts Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury Friday before starting a four-game road trip.

“The main thing with losses like this, we have to stay together," Latta said following Sunday's loss.

Washington's leading scorer caused no friction when Thibault chose to put her in the role of top reserve earlier this season.

Latta continued.

"We can’t point [to] this person [and] that person did it wrong…We have to stay together. ... We’ll be fine.” 

The good news is the record and talent suggests Latta's ultimate point is accurate. However, now is the time for the Mystics to grow a bit more so any bad news just comes in small doses.

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How the Wizards have taken Raptors big man Serge Ibaka out of the series on offense

How the Wizards have taken Raptors big man Serge Ibaka out of the series on offense

The Wizards-Raptors first round playoff series has evolved to feature the emergence of several players who started off slowly including Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat and Kelly Oubre, Jr. The opposite has happened for Toronto big man Serge Ibaka.

After Ibaka lit up the Wizards for 23 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in Game 1, there has been a disappearance. His scoring has gone missing and it's a big reason why the Wizards have won two straight games and earned a 2-2 series split.

Head coach Scott Brooks knows Ibaka well from their days in Oklahoma City. He helped develop Ibaka and has since watched from afar as his game has changed to include a consistent outside game.

Brooks has on several occasions referred to Ibaka as one of the best three-point shooting big men in the league. The numbers back that up. Last season, he shot 39.1 percent from three on 4.0 attempts per game, excellent for a 6-foot-10 power forward.

This season that number dipped to 36 percent, but he hit 41 percent of his threes in his final 16 games of the regular season. That carried over into the playoffs when he went 3-for-4 in Game 1 as part of an 8-for-11 shooting night overall.

The Wizards made a point to take away those outside shots following their series-opening defeat. The way they are doing that is by crowding him when he gets the ball, even if it means him getting past the initial defender.

"You want to make sure you meet him on the catch. You want to take away his shot," Brooks said. "When he gets open shots, they are money. He's going to knock them down... We did a good job of meeting him on his catch and making him put the ball on the floor with his left hand. You can live with the results."

After his 23-point outburst in Game 1, Ibaka has scored just 20 points total in the last three games. He has gone 2-for-6 from three.

The Wizards are taking away his shot attempts in general. He took 11 shots in each of the first two games of this series, but just four in Game 3 and five in Game 4. In Game 3 he had three points and three turnovers and on Sunday he had seven points and four turnovers.

Here are two examples of the Wizards' defense on Ibaka. On this first play, Markieff Morris meets Ibaka as soon as he catches the ball and the result is a turnover:

On this next play, Morris follows Ibaka all the way to the rim and even though he goes up on a pump fake, Morris recovers to alter Ibaka's shot and force a miss:

The Wizards, however, did get away with one against Ibaka. He was left wide open for a three in the final minute, but the shot rimmed out:

As the first two plays demonstrate, Morris deserves a lot of credit for the Wizards' success against Ibaka. He has the size and mobility to keep up with him and is willing to use contact to his advantage.

"Just playing the tendencies," Morris said. "We're making them do things they are uncomfortable with and are getting better results."

Ibaka was fourth on the Raptors this season in points per game and third in shot attempts. He is their third option behind All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. If the Wizards can continue to lock up Ibaka, it will be difficult for the Raptors to beat them.

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MORE FROM WIZARDS-RAPTORS SERIES:

OUBRE IS HELPING THE WIZARDS WIN IN MANY WAYS

WALL WAS DUNKING ALL OVER RAPTORS BIG MEN

MUST-SEE MOMENTS FROM GAME 4 WIN

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Wizards Tipoff podcast: Death Row D.C. and the Wizards are back

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Wizards Tipoff podcast: Death Row D.C. and the Wizards are back

On the latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast presented by Greenberg and Bederman, Chase Hughes and Chris Miller were joined by Julie Donaldson to break down the Wizards' wins in Games 3 and 4.

Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat are back and the Wizards are a different team because of it. Plus, how regaining their Death Row D.C. mentality has changed this series.

You can listen to the episode right here:

You can download the podcast on Apple Podcasts right here and on Google Play. If you like the show please tell your friends!