Defense. That’s the big takeaway from Washington’s rout of the Los Angles Sparks in last night’s elimination game in Washington, D.C. With renovations being done at Capital One arena and the Mystics new facility not yet open, they hosted the Sparks at the Smith Center on the Campus of George Washington University. The way the building is set up (sits 5,000), Washington fed off the energy of 3,800 fans and they ran past the Sparks to advance to the next round. Elena Delle Donne led the way with 19 points and 12 rebounds, but it’s important to share that Washington’s entire starting five scored in double digits. The Sparks were led by Candace Parker with 16 points and 8 rebounds, but they shot just 34% from the floor and turned it over 13 times.
The Mystics recommitted themselves to the defensive end of the floor as they closed the regular season with a record of 8-1, eight of those in a row at that. Last night they were lights out on that end, the Sparks never shot higher than 35% from the floor in any period. Some have already started to look at the Los Angeles travel schedule over the past few days as an issue in this game. Candace Parker said it best, “We did this to ourselves” and she’s right. The playoff format is the format, it behooves teams to get the best seeding possible, no lower than the four seed means you get to host at least one game.
Washington showed a level of maturity for a relatively young team, they took the Sparks first punch and then they countered. They went down six early and cut the deficit to one with 5:34 left in the quarter. From that point on they closed the quarter with a 17-5 run. Washington kept the pressure on in the second quarter, refusing to cede any control to Los Angeles and building a 21 point lead at the half.
It seemed as if everyone was waiting for that championship type response from the Sparks, but it never really happened. They did start the second half strong with a turnover and a three pointer, but it didn’t faze the Mystics. Ariel Atkins responded to that Parker triple with one of her own and it instantly settled the Mystics. The teams traded baskets for a while, but again that defense allowed Washington to create more separation. The Mystics pushed the lead to 29 by the end of the period, a triple from Toliver with 1:47 left in the quarter felt like a dagger despite it being the third quarter.
Los Angeles did make one more run, they started the fourth strong and cut the deficit to 18 at one point. A 15 footer from LaToya Sanders pushed the lead back to 20 and Washington pushed the lead back to 28 with 3:30 left in the game. Thibault took out Toliver and Delle Donne and they received a ton of love from the crowd at that moment. Both teams had took out their starters at that point, but Washington continued to push. Hines-Allen and Walker-Kimbrough had no intentions on just nursing the lead built by the starters. They combined for nine points in that span to push the lead to 32 as the game came to a close.
The Mystics advance to the next round where they’ll play the Atlanta Dream in a best of five series.
Defense. Washington’s commitment on that end of the floor has been great since the All-Star break. There weren’t many parts of the game in which Los Angles just got easy baskets. Some of the threes that went down were highly contested, the Mystics blocked five shots and had eight steals. As Atkins stated after the game, they were “on a string” on that end of the floor and it truly showed. The Mystics held Ogwumike and Gray to four-of-21 shooting from the floor. The biggest takeaway is that it lasted nearly four quarters, the intensity on that end.
Sanders. She never gets enough credit for what she brings to this team. She was everywhere on the defensive end and still contributed 14 points on the offensive end. She only had seven rebounds, but she got four steals and blocked three shots. Her chemistry with Delle Donne on the defensive end has been growing game by game, Delle Donne had nothing but praise for her post partner after the game. Sanders set the tone early on the defensive end and Washington fed off her defensive plays.
EDD passing. Teams really don’t want her getting those one-on-one opportunities in the post or along the baseline. She’s one of the league’s better scorers and deserves the extra attention from a defense. What’s changed is how quickly she’s passing out of the double teams, the Sparks tried to send either Cloud or Sanders man over for the double. Elena did a good job getting the assist or the hockey assist and the Sparks paid for it. She had four assists on the night and a couple of them resulted in wide open three pointers for Cloud. As Delle Donne continues to improve in this area of her game, it changes the way teams may have to defend Washington.
Ball Movement. Washington had 28 assists on 37 made field goals, at one point it was 22 assists on 27 made field goals. They’re one of the league’s better offensive team and with their weapons the passing is very dangerous.
Hawkins. The rotation shortened for Washington with about 6 games left in the regular season. Despite that, Tianna Hawkins has continued to impact the game off the bench. She played 16 minutes last night, scoring 10 points and knocking down two triples. Her ability to stretch the floor and defend allows her to play with several different lineups. She along with Sanders did a good job of boxing out so that their teammates could get the rebounds. She’s a luxury for Washington and is worth keeping an eye on as the playoffs continue.
Cloud. The last time these two teams played, she hit the game winner despite shooting just 2-of-11 from the floor. In that game she also wasn’t guarded by Alan Beard outside of the last shot. This game Beard was assigned to her from the opening tip, it meant a sign of respect as she’s probably Washington’s most important player. She’s the one that drives this car and it doesn’t quite operate the same when she’s not on the floor, the Sparks used her defender to double Delle Donne often in this game. Natasha made them pay by shooting an efficient 5-of-9 from the floor and 3-of-6 from deep. She also had five rebounds and seven assists, the five turnovers were a bit much, but she did more than enough to help her team with 13 points in the win.