The Washington Mystics are headed to the semifinals to take on the Minnesota Lynx after a big rally over the New York Liberty Sunday evening. It may have took all season, but Kristi Toliver had that “this is why they brought me here” performance last night and it it couldn’t of come at a better time. The savvy vet reminded everyone why she’s been deemed one of the best shooters in league history. The former Terrapin great knocked down nine three pointers en route to 32 points, more impressively is that she did this on just 20 shots. She went 10-of 20 from the floor and 9-of-16 from beyond the arc. That record breaking performance was needed, but it would have been in vain if Washington didn’t play lights out defense. Both of those reasons and the desire to keep fighting is what led Washington to that 82-68 win over the Liberty in Madison Square Garden.
Things started off horribly for Washington, they couldn’t buy a bucket early on and the Liberty appeared to be imposing their will. That led to a 21-10 advantage or the home team after the first period. In talking to Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Natasha Cloud after the Mystics win over the Wings, it seems that Washington to a player is tired of teams thinking they can be easily bullied and look to change that narrative. They certainly made a case for themselves in the win over Dallas in which the Mystics beat them on the boards and weren’t bothered by the over physical play.
It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that to get past New York the Mystics were going to half to win that battle of wills, it’s a Bill Lambier coached team that has prided itself on their toughness and physicality over the past few seasons. With three quarters to go, it looked as if Washington wasn’t going to be able to respond.
The Liberty stretched their lead to as many as 14 in the second quarter, then Washington started to fight back. A strong close to the half brought the deficit down to just six for the Mystics.
Then the third quarter happened.
Kristi scored 16 points in the period and Washington outscored New York 25-10. There was a stretch where the Mystics scored 15 consecutive points without a basket from the Liberty. Their defense in that quarter was amazing, the unsung hero again, may have been none other than Krystal Thomas. Her ability to guard Tina Charles one-on-one allowed Washington to shut down the “others” and sustain that run. Charles is going to get hers as she’s one of the best post players in the league, but Krystal really made her work and that was evident as Tina shot 8-of-17 for the game and only had 6 rebounds. The Mystics did a wonderful job on the glass, especially defensively as they held the Liberty to just three offensive rebounds for the entire game. That played a big role in that second half run as New York was one and done in terms of shots each trip down the floor.
With Toliver attracting so much attention from the defense, it opened things up for others. There have been discussions on the NBA side for a couple of seasons now about the gravity that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have on defenses, meaning that a simple off ball movement by them attracts 2-3 sets of eyes from defenders and it opens things up for others. That was the case for Toliver in the second half, Washington was able to get some easy looks as New York was focused on putting that fire out.
New York responded a bit in the fourth quarter, but the damage was done and Washington was able to easily hold on. That attention Toliver was getting as mentioned above, resulted in several easy shots for Washington in the period. Natasha Cloud did a good job of manipulating the already stretched Liberty defense to find her teammates as well. With Thomas focused on slowing down Charles, TRP did a great job making up that difference on the glass, hauling in 9 rebounds. Elena Delle Donne didn’t have a great night offensively, but she recorded her second consecutive double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
One of the bright spots for New York was former Mystics guard Bria Hartley. She scored 15 points against her former team and had five assists.
The Mystics may have to follow a similar blue print as they aim to take down Minnesota. They turned the ball over just six times against the Liberty, while New York turned it over 15 times. They won the battle on the glass in both playoff games thus far and their defense is going to have to take another step up in the next round as well. One thing that may help build confidence is that they didn’t shoot great in either round and they won both games.
Washington also has a small advantage that often gets overlooked as they head to Minnesota. They have nothing to lose. They’ve already ended their postseason drought by making this trip, this is the furthest they’ve advanced since 2002. They have the luxury of playing “free” in this next series, the Lynx and Sparks have been on a different level then the rest of the league in the regular season and they both know this part of the postseason very well. Washington must keep that same one-and-done mentality they’ve had to start this postseason run and maintain it each game against Minnesota. As long as they do that, anything is possible and the pressure is on Minnesota.
Lastly, through two games in the postseason, this isn’t the same Mystics team that finished the regular season.