With all of the excitement from the WNBA playoffs over the past week, you may have lost track of the Washington Mystics. The favorites to win the title have largely stayed out of the spotlight. The most important news about Mystics since the season ended may have been that Elena Delle Donne made a Lego Disney train set and it scared her Great Dane, Wrigley. But, the silence and calm will give way tonight as the Mystics take on the Las Vegas Aces at 8:30 pm on ESPN2. This best-of-five series should be evenly matched and very exciting. Let’s delve deep into what could decide this series.
The start of Game One will be huge
If you have just emerged from beneath a rock, the Aces got to the Semis off one of the most incredible shots in WNBA (and basketball) history. Hamby’s Heave will be remembered for a very long time as I wrote about yesterday. It will also be remembered tomorrow night. A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage, and Bill Laimbeer are all experts at riding momentum and building energy. So, the Aces will be HYPE tonight.
The question for DC is can they match that energy or will they look rusty after eight days off? Well, first, the Mystics obviously didn’t just take those days off to build lego train sets. Jenn Hatfield of Highpost Hoops chronicled what the Mystics did in their week with no games. The team had practice for three days, watched the other playoff games, and added some new situational sets while getting some much needed rest. Washington has also been extremely focused and ready to play all year. I doubt rust will be a major issue in Game 1.
However, being rusty and matching the energy of an excited, talented team in the playoffs are different problems. The Mystics loved to “throw the first punch” this season, as point guard Natasha Cloud likes to say. They want to get out to a lead early and sustain the other team’s runs, or “jabs,” throughout the game. The first quarter is usually the best quarter for the Mystics, who average the most first-quarter points in the league (24.9). They also give up just 19.1 first quarter points on average.
DC will need to dig deep early and hope their home crowd brings some juice. The Entertainment and Sports Arena (or the ESA) has provided some great crowds in its first year as the Mystics’ home. The fans are right on top of the court and can get really loud.
Landing the first punch in this series will be huge. The Mystics have been great at home this season, so tonight might be the best chance for Vegas to catch them off guard and get a needed road win. If the Aces steal a game in DC, I’d guess it would be Game 1. The Mystics need to bring the energy early to avoid that.
The Largest Lineups
These teams have some of the most talented bigs in the W, which should create interesting match ups. The Mystics have the MVP-favorite Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman, and Latoya Sanders to go up against Wilson, Cambage, and Hamby for LV. Bill Laimbeer has experimented with playing Vegas’ bigs together and it has worked pretty well. Vegas’s offensive rating slightly increases with the trio on the floor. Defensively, the grouping is devastating with a 85.4 defensive rating. In the second round against Chicago, they played 22 minutes together to help Vegas win.
However, the Mystics’ frontcourt group plays even better together. EDD, Meesseman, and Latoya Sanders have played 139 minutes as a unit this year, more than double the minutes of Vegas’s trio (68). Their offensive rating skyrockets to 117.7 points per 100 possesssions when those three Mystics take the court. The team also plays significantly better on defense with all those long arms on the court.
Hopefully, we get to see both these trios battle against each other a lot. The Aces bigs are bit more powerful and bullish than DC’s. But the Mystics’ frontcourt can make more plays on the perimeter and switch better defensively. It will be an excellent chess match and we’ll see some amazing plays by some large people. DC needs to find a way to match the Aces post-strength on defense and finesse them on offense. The front court battle will set the tone for this series and I expect it will be a tough one for DC to win.
Keeping it clean defensively
To win this series, the Mystics will have to keep the Aces off the foul line. Vegas takes the most free throw attempts and has the best free throw attempt rate in the WNBA. A’ja Wilson ranks first in the league for free throw attempts, taking 5.5 a game. Liz Cambage gets to the line for 4.8 free throw attempts a game, good for fourth. Both Hamby and Kayla McBride also rate in the top 25 for free throw attempts. To sum it up, the Aces’ offense is built on trips to the charity stripe.
Washington seems up to the challenge of carefully defending the Aces. They commit the least amount of fouls in the league with just 15.5 personal fouls per game. DC plays very smart defense and can pressure without fouling. Latoya Sanders will have the biggest challenge, considering that she will likely match up with a bulkier player. She needs to keep moving her feet and keep her hands up when in the post.
The magic number seems to be 25 free throws for Vegas. The Aces are 8-1 when they get 25 or more foul shots, and 13-12 when they don’t. The Mystics should be up to the challenge as they only allowed 25 or more foul shots once in 2019. However, that one time came against the Aces in July and the Mystics lost that game (without EDD, but still). Washington cannot allow Vegas to get too the line that often in this series.
Kristi Toliver’s Health and Role
Finally some good injury news in this 2019 WNBA season: Kristi Toliver may be back in game one of this series. She has not played since August 4th with bone bruise in her knee, but the team listed her as probable for game one. The injury sounds similar to the one EDD suffered in last year’s playoffs. It seems to be more about the pain than risk of re-injury, so expect the Mystics to have a minutes limit for the all-star guard.
Coach T faces some interesting decisions with Toliver back. He could just reinsert her into the starting lineup and go back to normal, so to speak. However, he could also decide to have Toliver come off the bench. She hasn’t played in a month and will likely not be able to play a full game. Additionally, the team played extremely well with either Aerial Powers or Emma Meesseman starting. Toliver would terrorize opposing bench players and run the floor with an already excellent Mystics bench. Either way, her return is a boon for a team that didn’t really need any help.
I’m going with the Mystics. Washington has the MVP, the league’s winningest coach, and the best offense in league history. They have been simply dominant this season. All of that would be reason enough to pick DC. But they also match up very well with Vegas. DC can match the Aces’ energy early in game one. Their bigs can take it to Vegas’ stellar frontcourt and they can play clean, foul-free defense. Las Vegas will bring it and make these games close for the most part. But it won’t be enough.
The Mystics will take the series 3-1 and move on to the Finals.