A lot of effort and energy was extolled by the Washington Mystics just to get to the 2020 WNBA Playoffs. Buried down the league standings with an abysmal 4-12 record and a week and a half to go on the season, things were not looking good for Washington.
But the Mystics’ goal to get back on track and make the playoffs never wavered. Despite losing 12 out of 13 and only winning one game in the month of August, the team remained steadfast on extending it’s season no matter the odds.
Behind breakout star Myisha Hines-Allen (17.0 ppg), Washington clawed and improbably climbed out of the hole. They won five of their final six games in a 10-day span, by far their best stretch of the season, and used a little bit of luck from other teams.
Every game during that stretch they only had nine active players. Some games they were down to only eight. Each starter averaged more than 32 minutes per game in those contests, gutting it out because there wasn’t much other option.
It’s a miracle Washington finished 9-13 to make the postseason for their fourth straight season. Still, the celebration was subdued in the locker room to hugs and a Hines-Allen water bottle shower on her head coach. They don’t want this appearance to be a one-and-done.
“When we came to the bubble [the goal] was, of course, to make playoffs, but (now the goal is) a championship,” Hines-Allen said after the final game of the regular season. “We are the defending champions, so we have to continue to one fight. We're in the eighth spot, we fought for that so let's just continue to keep pushing, keep grinding it out.”
All season the whole team has brushed off the idea of ‘repeating’ and ‘defending their title.’ The roster construction is not the same, once Aerial Powers left the wubble they only had four returners from the championship team left playing. They were without four starters from that squad and their key offseason edition Tina Charles got a medical waiver.
RELATED: Mystics clinch final postseason spot
“We're still coming off a strong season last year, so you don't want to just give up everything,” Emma Meesseman said postgame Sunday. “And we knew it was going to be hard, because you had to be like a really good team, but at the end of the day we did that. We just did everything step by step.”
Now that it’s the playoffs the mindset has changed. This team has come together and is playing their most complete basketball. Few teams aside from those with byes into the Semifinals are hotter than Washington.
And ven though the Mystics have accomplished so much on their comeback with a group composed of Ariel Atkins, Meesseman, a handful of reserves and a bunch of mid-season acquisitions, they don’t think they’re done.
“We want to stay here as long as possible. We still do have a lot to prove because we are the defending champs,” Hines-Allen said. “We might not have a lot of our players that contributed to us winning a championship last year but they're here in spirit and they continue to communicate with us and stay in touch with us.”
The team should have confidence as they enter their First Round, single-elimination matchup against the Phoenix Mercury. Wins were gathered over three playoff-bound teams in the final two weeks over the Chicago Sky, Minnesota Lynx and No. 3 seeded Los Angeles Sparks.
Throw in wins over the top-seeded Storm and Sun at the beginning of the season and Washington has a victory over five of the seven opposing playoff teams.
Much of the team’s success in September is due to their effort on the defensive end. They only allowed 76.4 points per game in the final month, the best in the league during that stretch. Their 15.7 turnovers forced per game are also a league-best. The offense has come as a result of that.
“The work we've done the last few weeks when most teams would have quit has paid off,” head coach Mike Thibault said after clinching the playoff spot. “It's a great, great testament to how they hung in. It's just a wonderful feeling anytime you win, but to do it how we've done to get in, it's a great feeling.”
Another added benefit they can hinge on is they have been in playoff mode for weeks. Nearly every game could have been considered a must-win and had they lost any of them they would be heading home in the early portion of this week. Barring some rest, Thibault likes how that helped them.
“If we get some sleep between now and then that'll help us. We haven't had a lot of recovery time. But I think that the fact that we've had to play in this manner now for, like you said, a week or two, probably helped us with our urgency,” Thibault said.
Playing on Tuesday means the regimented schedule will stay mostly the same over the next few days. It stays right in rhythm with what has been the norm in an unnormal season. They’ll play Phoenix who they lost in back-to-back contests to mid-August. The first was by a single point, the second by 22.
But it is a new season for the Mystics with a clean slate. No one cares what has been done up to this point. Now it’s all about a title defense.
“We're the defending champs. We have the defend our championship, our title so we're gonna keep doing that,” Hines-Allen said.