The battle for the eighth seed in the 2020 WNBA Playoffs came down to the final game of the season, with the Washington Mystics defeating the Atlanta Dream on Sunday afternoon to clinch a playoff berth and knock the Dallas Wings out of the postseason.
Anything can happen in the WNBA’s postseason, as the first two rounds are single-elimination games. Does that mean the defending champion Mystics have a chance to make a run for a title? Or, at least, a run at not losing in the first round?
Let’s examine some best and worst case scenarios for the Mystics.
What the Mystics did this Season
Maybe the best place to start in discussing what the Mystics did is to discuss who the Mystics didn’t have with them in the WNBA’s bubble.
Washington played this season without the reigning WNBA MVP, Elena Delle Donne, who opted out due to health concerns. They also played without two key players from last year’s team, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, who also opted out. Veteran guard Kristi Toliver was signed by the Los Angeles Sparks in free agency.
Oh, and the team swung a huge trade for former MVP Tina Charles, who also opted not to play in 2020.
The Mystics were left with a team that was missing its most important pieces. Suddenly, the co-favorites for the title before the year started (along with Seattle, who ended up as the #2 seed behind Vegas at season’s end) were in big trouble.
But the team still had plenty of key players. Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. Ariel Atkins. Tianna Hawkins. (Side note: wild how many good players this team still has, even with Aerial Powers out for the season too.)
They also saw huge improvements from Myisha Hines-Allen, who averaged 7.8 minutes per game in 2019 and then saw a jump to 30 per contest this season. Hines-Allen averaged 17.1 points and 8.9 rebounds with 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Hines-Allen shot 43.5 percent from three on 2.8 attempts per contest. She’s one of the favorites for Most Improved Player and is receiving some hype as an All-WNBA Second Team candidate.
The Mystics started 2020 out strong, but Mike Thibault’s team faded in the middle of the season, losing 12 of 13 games at one point and looked headed for the lottery. But they won five of their final six to finish at 9-13 and make the playoffs. So, here they are.
Best-Case Playoff Scenario
We’ve seen this team hit some big highs this season. They beat the Storm by 18 early in the season. They have wins over the Sky, the Lynx, and the Sparks. That’s four of the top six seeds that the Mystics have defeated at some point.
This is a scary team, especially when you consider how hot they are right now. Leilani Mitchell — who I hadn’t even mentioned yet — is providing a steady, veteran presence at the point. After this defense had sunk to the bottom of the league during their long losing streak, they ended the season with the third-best defensive rating over the final five games.
It’s hard to see the Mystics beating anyone in a series, but in a pair of single-elimination games? Oh, they can do that. Get one of those dominant games that we’ve seen from Hines-Allen at times, get Kiara Leslie to hit some threes, and have Emma Meesseman reprise her play from last season’s playoffs, this is a team that can get a couple of upset.
Worst-Case Playoff Scenario
This is also a team that’s about to run into the buzzsaw that is Playoff Diana Taurasi, which is made even scarier by the fact that Washington lost to Phoenix twice in the regular season.Both losses came after Brittney Griner had left the bubble too.
Washington’s defense was mired in struggles during that time and allowed Taurasi to score 34 points in the first meeting, and then when they held her to 14 in the next game, Skylar Diggins-Smith scored 24.
I just don’t love how these teams match up. Brianna Turner has been playing some great defense lately, and the Mercury are starting a three-guard lineup that should trouble the Mystics defense. Depth is an issue for the Mercury, but it’s an issue that feels more likely to rear its head in a series and not a single game.
Also, the Mystics might be the defending champions, but with so many key players not available, I’d give the “playoff experience” edge to Phoenix, even though that technically isn’t true if you look at the actual data:
— Focus TV (@TheFocus_TV) September 14, 2020
So, what will happen on Tuesday?
You’re just going to have to watch some basketball and find out.