Washington Mystics head coach Julie Plank was the epitome of business as usual after her team’s big 80-71 win on Sunday against the Seattle Storm, which just happens to be the best team in the WNBA. But the coach still understood that the victory was crucial, not only for a team still learning a lot about themselves, but also for their playoff hopes.
“It just felt like a championship, a playoff-type game,” said Plank after the win over the previously 25-5 Storm at the Verizon Center, pushing the Mystics’ record to 19-12, the most regular season wins in franchise history with three games to go. “We’ve won six out of eight games, and this is kinda how we were playing before the All-Star break,” Plank continued. “We’re in a good rhythm right now, and we know that every game matters …. we haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet.”
“Yet” was evidently the operative word. The Connecticut Sun later lost to the Indiana Fever on Sunday, clinching a playoff berth for the Mystics likely before Plank even left the arena, and also marking another franchise first — the first time the team has ever earned consecutive trips to the WNBA playoffs.
So how did the Mystics do it? It wasn’t easy. On Friday in Connecticut, Seattle rested several of their top players. Point guard leader, and third in the league with 5.6 assist per game, Sue Bird played just over six minutes. Swin Cash, averaging 14 points per game, second on the Storm, also played just over six minutes. And two-time MVP Lauren Jackson, third in the WNBA averaging 20.9 points per game, didn’t even play; the reason cited was back spasms. Seattle lost to a Connecticut team that Washington has been trying to fend off for a playoff berth by 20 points.
Sunday was a different story. Jackson showed every bit of her natural skill and feel for the basket en route to 14 points, Cash looked to be unstoppable both inside and out, leading her team with 15 points, and Bird was a straight surgeon on the hardwood – Jason Kidd with a jump shot — on her way to notching 12 points and seven assists. The Storm came to play.
“We just have to expect everybody’s going to play. I don’t know what they’re doing. We just know we gotta win,” said Plank, mentioning that her team expected Jackson, who wasn’t listed in the pre-game starting lineup, to play.
But the Mystics did more than just knowing they had to win. They set a tone of toughness early, led by work on the glass from Chasity Melvin, who had two offensive rebounds in the first quarter, four for the game. On the evening, Washington out-scored Seattle 20-9 in second chance points … a clear sign that they wanted it more.
The Mystics did struggle with offensive direction in the second quarter and got out-scored 19-12 in the period after taking a 20-17 lead after the first. Lindsey Harding is a great change of pace point guard, and can score on both jumpers and drives, but at times on Sunday, depending on who she was on the floor with, Harding had trouble establishing confidence in the Mystics’ offense. Matee Ajavon doesn’t offer a ton in terms of point production off the bench, so Plank often turns to veteran Katie Smith to lead the show.
Smith didn’t score or even get a rebound in the third quarter when the Mystics out-scored the Storm 27-17, but she more than filled her role as the do-it-all floor general. With 5:13 left in the period, and the Storm up 43-41, Smith found Harding on a pass and cut for an easy layup. Less than a minute and a half later, Smith made the right swing pass, again finding Harding who hit a big three to put Washington up 49-45.
And don’t forget the efforts of Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne, the two most talented, healthy players on the Mystics’ roster. They did the heavy lifting, scoring eight points a piece in the third. Currie led all scorers with 25 points for the game, nailing five of her seven attempts from beyond the arc.
But Seattle, as very good teams are wont to do, didn’t give up. The Storm kept coming, and were only down 59-53 at the start of the fourth. But the Mystics seemed to have an answer for every push they made to get the game closer. Seven different players scored for Washington in the fourth, where the team also netted a third of their total assists for the game (five over 15). And they sealed the deal by hitting their free-throws and not turning the ball over.
“A big difference was our free-throw percentage, we shot 19-22, and the best out of all is we only turned the ball over 10 times,” said Plank after the game. The Mystics usually turn the ball over 17.4 times per game, second worst in the WNBA.
So that’s just a small part of the story about playoff basketball coming to D.C. sooner rather than later. The Mystics continued the consistent effort they’ve shown almost all season. Everyone pitched in by doing what they do best, along with added playoff-caliber hustle.
Plank praised her team for the poise they played with down the stretch, and there wasn’t a more deserving fan base in the city to witness it. Now it’s time for more of D.C. to stand up and support the Mystics as they head to the post-season. They play so well off each other, you might just find them fun to watch. And who knows, they might just bring the District a championship too.
Note: The Mystics will play at San Antonio on Tuesday, wrap up the home slate against New York on Friday, and will close out the regular season in Atlanta on Sunday August 22.
And for the hell of it, a Mystics fan in a John Wall “Game Changer” shirt…