The wait is over, the Washington Mystics clinched the fourth and final playoff spot last night with a win over the Indiana Fever. The postseason berth makes it the third consecutive year in which Washington will participate in postseason play. Their 76-72 overtime win over the Fever was a little bit bigger than the players made it seem after the game, as all the right things were said in that regard. Which is understandable, as Tierra Ruffin-Pratt stated the game “was more about us” and she was right. It was about Washington digging deep and finding a level of toughness that Indiana and other teams may not think existed.
Earlier this season, I mentioned that Indiana was like Washington’s personal Detroit Pistons (young Bulls struggled) or Boson Celtics (James, Wade struggled before teaming up). They play a physical brand of basketball, their goal is to muddy the game up and force their opponent to face the Fever, the officials, and eventually get them to think about anything other than the task ahead. If a team is too busy making a case to the officials, they’re usually not nearly as focused on the details needed to win. Teams like the Fever engage in physical and mental warfare, they’re a veteran team that is comfortable in nearly any situation. They do their best to make sure their comfortable at all times, rarely letting an opposing team dictate the terms and tempo at which the game will be played. Both of those teams mentioned also had at least one future Hall of Famer on the floor that embodied that type of play and made sure their team would be a tough out, if they were put out. It had to be earned, Tamika Catchings has been in Indy her whole career and she’s made an impact on every team they rolled out over the years. There’s a reason they’re always in the mix, the Fever have championship pedigree and Catch has a lot to do with it.
The Fever were responsible for Washington’s early exit in the postseason last year, playing their brand of basketball, imposing their will to a tee and winning the series. The Mystics fought hard, but didn’t “fight” back necessarily. A colleague and I were speaking yesterday, in series like that when one team is known for it’s physical style of play they tend to get a little bit of leeway. When a team is seen as finesse, then start to get back, or at least even in the physical department, calls tend to get made. It was like that for both those Pistons and Celtics teams, their brand of basketball wasn’t always pretty, but they were physical, mentally tough teams that refused to play any game at their opponents terms.
“We have unfinished business.” – Mystics guard Ivory Latta
Similar to those examples between Washington and Indiana, the youngsters in D.C. are a more skilled team from top to bottom. When the Pistons were keeping the young Bulls from taking that next step, things didn’t change until Chicago embraced the style of play and took the fight to Detroit. Wade and James went through a similar struggle with the Pierce-Garnett-Allen led Celtics, they couldn’t get past them alone. When they came together in Miami along with Chris Bosh, the trio was then able to fight back and slay their “bully” on their way to better things. It wasn’t easy either, but those steps had to happen for them to go forward. It’s easy to look at last night’s win over the Fever as just a win, but it’s also can be seen as a defining moment for these young Mystics as they head into the postseason.
Washington may not have that “star” that is able to shoulder the load every night or that is a house hold name. What they do have is a one of the deepest rosters in the league from a talent standpoint and can attack teams in waves. Not having a so called “star” also means teams can’t single any one player out as part of a defensive game plan, the Mystics do an outstanding job of moving the ball. A perfect example of that was near the end of the first half of last night’s game, the Fever were struggling to slow down Washington during a run so they started to apply half court pressure in hopes of speeding the young team up and forcing errors. Instead, Washington broke the pressure with ball movement, resulting in back-to-back triples that capped an 8-0 run.
The Mystics just refused to back down last night, every Fever run was responded to by Washington. They won the battle on the glass with Dolson missing a ton of time due to foul trouble (due to some interesting calls), LaToya Sanders was outstanding as she recorded a double-double off of the bench. Emma Meesseman displayed her toughness and grit while fighting Lynetta Kizer and Catch down there on the glass as well.
It’s easy to look at last night’s win as just a regular season game that the team needed a victory and that’s fair. While it wasn’t a postseason series won by Washington, their recent history with the Fever made it a big game and it was apparent from both sides that it was. Indiana could have easily mailed it in, but they didn’t, they fought Washington with their usual ferocity. Not wanting to relinquish that edge or “power” they may felt they had over the younger team. The worse thing that can happen for a veteran team in cases like this, is that young team going from “thinking” they can win to “believing” they can win.
It could also be one of those defining moments for a young team that helps them realize who they are and what they’re capable of. Several Mystics players were happy that they finally clinched their postseason berth, but the mood in the locker room wasn’t overly celebratory. It was more of a team that is starting to realize that they’re capable of making a deep run and identifying what needs to be done to reach that goal. Last night, they proved something to themselves, now they’re ready to go out and prove it to the rest of the Eastern Conference in the postseason.
Latta stating that there’s “unfinished business” was a sentiment that was shared by her teammates, supporting the semi-celebratory mood after the game. Ivory was outstanding last night’s win, showing off her full offensive game in the process. Washington’s been looking forward to the postseason all year long, back at media day the talked about taking the next step. Their regular season wasn’t great, but there were “flashes” of how good a team they could be throughout the year. Meesseman talked about “going out and doing it” in reference to playing consistently at a high level, that the team knows it can, it just has to do it.
There’s just two games left in the regular season, than Washington goes to the post season with a chance to “prove” that they’re a force to be reckoned with. It wouldn’t be a bad time for them to play their best basketball either, as Natasha Cloud shared last night, it could be “scary” for opposing teams. Slaying their personal “bully” will be something they can draw confidence from going forward.