In front of a crowd of nine thousand plus at George Mason University’s Eagle Bank Arena, the Washington Mystics saw their season come to a close last night at the hands of the Seattle Storm. The visiting Storm completed the three game sweep with a 98-82 win, led by Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard. These two teams were both talented in their own right, but one of the clearest things that separated them as the series played out was the business like approach by Seattle. They played with a hunger, a sense of urgency, and they truly seemed to grasp the moment. A big reason for that was what they learned about themselves in the battle against the Phoenix Mercury, they nearly squandered a 2-0 lead and had grind it out in five games. As for Washington, it seemed like a team that was extremely happy to be in that moment, that place which was the WNBA Finals. They never truly played to the level they reached during that 10 game win streak to close the season or match that level of urgency they found in the Atlanta series.
Stewart played like the player that won the regular season Most Valuable Player Award and was clearly one of the best on the floor this entire series. Natasha Howard described her and Stewie’s on court pairing similar to Jordan and Pippen. Obviously they have a ways to go to match that in the title department, but from last night’s game this statement isn’t far fetched. They combined to score 59 of the team’s 98 points, at halftime the duo were outscoring Washington 34-30. Howard’s 29 points and 14 rebounds complemented Stewart’s 30 points and 8 rebounds very well, she won’t get enough credit for her performance, but she’s a huge reason as to why this series turned on it’s side like this. Her range defensively really bothered Washington and offensively she consistently gave them fits, whether it was rolling to the rim as a screener or stepping out and knocking down a perimeter jumper.
Despite the loss, Washington learned that it has some youngsters in Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen that weren’t scared of the big stage and could be huge contributors going forward. Atkins broke Maya Moore’s record for points scored in playoff run by a rookie, she’s only going to continue to get better. Natasha Cloud took a huge step forward this season, although she didn’t have the type of Finals performance that showed that growth. Elena Delle Donne (23 points) was obviously banged up, and Washington gets to look forward to the return of Emma Meesseman next season. This series was lost because of the little things, attention to detail. Boxing out and turning the ball over really hurt them, but they didn’t consistently play with the type of urgency needed in this situation. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt continued to prove why she’s so valuable to this team, in every round she contributed more and more as her team needed her. She sparked a key run late in the fourth quarter, but Seattle responded accordingly.
The first half wasn’t pretty from an offensive standpoint for either team, the difference were Seattle’s front court. Alysha Clark (15 points) had seven of her nine rebounds at the half and helped secure several extra possessions for her team. She knocked down a few timely triples as well, all of which seemed to come after an offensive rebound. With both teams shooting around 33% from the floor heading into the second quarter, the biggest difference in shooting by halftime was beyond the arc. The Storm knocked down 7-of-14 while Washington was just 3-of-11, Seattle closed the half strong and led by 17 after two quarters.
The Mystics didn’t roll over to start the second half, on two occasions they knocked down that huge lead to single digits. But each time, the Storm responded with a basket by either Stewart of Howard. The Mystics did a good job on Seattle’s guards for most of the night, Sue Bird would have 10 points and 10 assists, but most of those points came in the fourth quarter. Jewel Loyd scored just six points on 2-of-11 shooting.
LaToya Sanders would come out the game early in the fourth quarter when hustling out of bounds to save a loose ball. She had to be helped off the floor and into the locker room. Later in the period, she reemerged and joined her teammates on the bench, but had to use crutches to do so. That led to Hines-Allen playing the remaining of the game, at least until Coach Thibault subbed everyone out.
With 8:05 left in the game, Ruffin-Pratt drilled a triple to cut the deficit to eight. Kristi Toliver hit two free throws to bring it down to six with 7:31 left, but the Storm responded with a layup from Clark. After that point, Washington would get no closer as Stewart and Bird hit a couple of shots to extend the lead. The Storm rebuilt their lead from that point and were able to close things out.
Looking forward, Washington is still a relatively young team and has room to grow. It will be interesting to see the development of Atkins, Hines-Allen, Aerial Powers and even Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. If that group can take another step forward in their development this offseason, that only strengthens this Washington team. Cloud just finished her first year as a starting point guard in this league, she hasn’t reached her potential either and having TRP and Tianna Hawkins only shows just how deep this group is. It’s just as important that Delle Donne and Toliver (22 points) continue to grow, a few teams were able to make life extremely hard for those two and the gameplan isn’t going to change much as who the focal points are to slow down Washington going forward. Lastly, no one knows what Thibault will find in this year’s draft as he certainly hit on both players from last year.
Seattle, they had the best player in the league this season and she’s just 24 years old. That pairing of her and Howard can truly be special, they’re of that new evolved model of bigs and it’s tough to deal with them. If Howard can continue to add to her offensive game, she hurt Washington from every single level offensively, it’s going to make them extremely tough to stop. Sue has a very capable backup in Canda and as Jordin continues to develop, Bird won’t have to play as many minutes throughout the regular season. There’s still the ever dangerous Lloyd, Seattle has a good group and one that is capable of doing this again.