The Last Pro Basketball Playoff Victory in D.C. — Effort from Mystics Falls Short
The Wizards’ sister team, the Washington Mystics, have played three playoffs games in Washington since that late-April night, losing all three, most recently on Saturday night to the Atlanta Dream. They now must play the Dream at their home arena on Monday night in a do-or-die Game 3. A win would advance the Mystics to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in team history where they would face the Indiana Fever.
Yes, I spent much of my Saturday evening watching WNBA playoff action, my first live Mystics game since going to a couple matches in 2010. Women’s professional basketball isn’t for everyone—don’t likely have to tell you, dear reader—but, as I’ve written before, it’s an endeavor of the sport, and from the leaders of the National Basketball Association, that’s well worth the effort.
Contingent on not limiting your willingness, if you are searching for the spirit of the game of basketball, you will easily find it, and more, in these sparsely attended WNBA arenas. If Ted Leonsis ever built a basketball facility along the lines of the Kettler facility, and it was in the city near a Metro stop, you wonder if the Mystics would be better served, atmosphere-wise, playing in a smaller venue. Curtaining off portions of the Verizon Center wouldn’t be hard, either.
Still, such concerns won’t dull the passion of Mystics faithful, likely featuring a greater percentage of those who invest in the long run. Hardly a stretch for a niche sport. Still, WNBA fans know good basketball, they know bad basketball, and they get as loud as they want to get.
Crafty dribbling, pick-and-rolls, physical play, and teamwork almost mattering more than it does in the NBA—the ebb and flow of the WNBA may be clunky (a rugby match, of sorts), but it stays true to the original principles of Dr. James Naismith’s invention. If you love basketball, this is not lost on you. Athleticism of NBA players is merely a bonus that brings the money. Previously against the idea, I do wonder if the call to lower the rims in women’s basketball is in the best interest of slightly expanding the niche and attracting a more casual fanbase. As impractical as it sounds, especially in terms of having to change the rims for all levels of female play, the natural but limited verticality of the women’s game having to adhere to the same scale of Blake Griffin and LeBron James just doesn’t seem reasonable.
I paid closely attention to the women’s basketball team while attending Mississippi State University about a decade ago for several reasons. I worked with the men’s basketball team and knew many of their counterparts. I often played with members of the women’s team at the college’s rec center. It almost always featured a more desirable style of play, at least for pickup—passing, cutting, spacing, vision, and most often, the knock-down open jumpers, smoothened the aesthetics for those who like the game-in-motion, and without the usual imbalance that results from five dudes, selected to be on a pick-up basketball team and find out what happens when they are forced to play together. Not many appreciate the comfort in basketball intelligence when they are focused on physical imbalances. Finally, the Lady Bulldogs were damn good during my time. They featured LaToya Thomas, a four-time Kodak All-American and one-time No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick who had game, and relative size (6-foot-2), like a female Carmelo Anthony; and Tan White, an award-winning college player and one-time second overall WNBA draft pick. They were insanely fun to watch. They made you forget the face-value differences between the men’s and women’s games and allowed you to concentrate on substance while being treated to style.
I respect women’s basketball, even if I don’t always make the effort to appreciate it. Unfortunately for the Mystics, I brought them no luck in their efforts to advance to the second round of the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2002. Led by four starters scoring in double-figures, the Mystics took it to the Dream during Game 1 in Atlanta last Thursday night, 71-56, and dominated the glass, 48-36. After winning their first playoff game since 2004, it was the opposite story back home on Saturday. The starters only combined for five made field goals and Washington lost the rebounding battle, 53-30.
“Lot different than pre-game,” said Mystics coach Mike Thibault as he sat down for the media after an embarrassing loss, fresh off winning the WNBA’s Coach of the Year Award, which was announced just prior to tip-off. Thibault, a basketball lifer, has served various roles in the NBA since becoming a pro basketball journeyman in the early 80s—scout, advisor, and assistant coach. He had coached in the Continental Basketball Association and in the World Basketball Association, as well as for the United States’ national basketball program, and he was recently profiled in a column by the Washington Post’s Mike Wise. Thibault turned to the WNBA to relieve his head coaching itch over a decade ago. Hired to lead the Mystics prior to last season, Thibault previously coached the Connecticut Sun for 10 seasons, winning coach of the year twice and making the playoffs eight times, but never securing a WNBA title.
“Do you want me to state the obvious? We were awful, on offense particularly,” Thibault led. “I don’t know if it was nerves but that was the worst offensively we’ve played all year.” It wasn’t much different from the frustrated press conferences I’ve seen of Flip Saunders and Randy Wittman. “Some of it was their defense…” Thibault credited the Dream before trailing off deeper into the issues of his Mystics. His team shot 25 percent from the field on the night (14-for-56), the second-worst percentage from a single team in WNBA playoff history (the Phoenix Mercury once shot 15-for-67 from the field in a 1997 playoff game, the first season of the league’s existence).
Nerves would have been my guess. Open looks within Washington’s offense clanged off the rim, often left or right, but no one was driving the lane, either. Then came missed shots from close range, and Atlanta’s perimeter defense locked-in. Asking fans to stand until they first score, just like the Wizards, the Mystics didn’t put butts in seats until almost half of the 10-minute first quarter was over—at least they remembered to stand back up after a 7-0 deficit and a Thibault timeout. Washington finally put points on the board thanks to a play drawn-up during said timeout.
The first quarter ended with the Mystics shooting just 16.7 percent and down 17-9; the half ended with them down 36-21. Point guard Ivory Latta, a seven-year league veteran who’s completing her first year in Washington, was the only starter who could muster any type of production, even if the Dream’s Jasmine Thomas hawked her at every turn. Starting off guard Matee Ajavon, Washington’s fourth-leading scorer during the season, struggled in particular. She got caught setting illegal screens, she forced shots, and she didn’t get her feet under the jumpers she took. Team backbones Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne combined to go 0-for-9 from the field on the evening, scoring just three total points. During the regular season the duo accounted for almost 30 percent of Washington’s point production.
Rookies Emma Meesseman, a center from Belgium, and Tayler Hill, last year’s fourth overall pick (essentially the equivalent of Bradley Beal for the Mystics), were the only saving graces. The pair combined for 19 points in 39 total minutes off the bench, Hill catching fire with a 3-for-6 effort from deep and Meesseman showing some crafty footwork in the post that would make Kevin McHale proud. The Mystics closed to within 10 points of Atlanta at the end of the third quarter but could never get past that double-digit hump.On the other end, Angel McCoughtry led the Dream with 20 points, but her effort wasn’t pretty. She threw up 23 shots, making six, to get those 20 points. “The shot is… I’ll always get another shot, you know what I mean?” McCoughtry said matter-of-factly afterward. McCoughtry most reminds me of a Ron Artest-type player, in particular speaking of the Artest who was traded by the Indiana Pacers to the Sacramento Kings for Peja Stojakovic midway through the 2005-06 season. Artest, along with Bonzi Wells, led a rag-tag Kings team, in their first season post-Chris Webber, to a valiant 4-2 first round loss against the Spurs in the playoffs. That was the last time Sacramento made the postseason.
“I thought that Angel set the tone a lot with some pressure defense at the wing and some steals. She’s the type of player that can roam around and guard two, or three people at a time,” said Dream coach Fred Williams after the game.
McCoughtry powered her way to the game’s first basket after a two-minute scoreless drought by both teams, she made 7-of-8 free throw attempts, she tied up Washington’s center for loose balls— she fouled out of the game—and to put a capper on the night, late in the fourth quarter, Angel missed a shot, got her own rebound, and proceeded to will the ball through the hoop. This, combined with a long 2-pointer from the corner soon thereafter, upon which McCoughtry celebrated herself at levels not often seen in a WNBA game, were the daggers that sent Mystics fans to the exits.
It’s basketball—ugly or pretty; male or female; playoff hopes on the line, or just a profession. Washington and Atlanta will square off in the series-deciding game at 8pm on NBA TV tonight.
“We still did what we did in the first game, but we just didn’t make the shots,” said Latta, team leader as both point guard and top scorer on the season, after the loss on Saturday.
“They’re the same Atlanta team, they always deny the guards. And so when they deny the guards, we have to look at other options.” Latta later smiled confidently as she left the press conference table with a bounce in her step. She’s excited about playoff basketball. It doesn’t matter who is watching.