It’s finally here, the WNBA Playoffs officially begin tonight. For the Washington Mystics, they play tomorrow night in New York as they take on the top seeded Liberty in the first round of this year’s postseason. A matchup that features two of the best defensive teams in the league, it’ll come down to which team’s offense is able to execute more.
The Liberty were able to separate themselves from the rest of the East behind stifling defense and two stars on the offensive end in Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince. While they are easily the focal points, they have more than ample help with the rest of the players that make up the roster. Veteran Swin Cash provides that veteran leadership along with the requisite talent to produce when needed. Essence Carson, Sugar Rodgers, Candice Wiggins, and Tanisha Wright all play their roles and support the two lead players very well. Their youngsters have grown this season and played a role as well in Kiah Stokes and Brittany Boyd, Stokes provides a special level of versatility on the defensive end and Boyd has shown flashes of the type of player she can grow into.
Washington had an up and down year, some due to injuries and partly due to just having a deep team. On a team with not as much talent, or varying level of talents in which clear cut roles are given, it’s a bit easier to settle in on a rotation. The Mystics are very Spurs like, in the manner in which they share the ball, the pass up good shots to get great shots. So there’s not a specific player that’s going to get 12-15 shots a game, the closest may be Ivory Latta, but there’s games in which Washington’s won that she only had two or three points. The Mystics do have two All-Stars on their team as youngsters Emma Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson’s games have continued to improve.
On the Offensive End
The Liberty will assuredly get their two horses going in Charles in Prince, they don’t have much success if at least one of the two isn’t producing. It’s imperative that the “others” step in and produce for the Liberty. Make Washington’s defense have to play them honest, which will limit the double-teams that may come Charles way. If some of New York’s perimeter players can hit shots from the outside, it opens up space for Charles to operate. They have great size in their starting front court with Tina, Swin, and Kiah. If both Swin and Kiah can be aggressive and assertive on the offensive end, it limits the help that the Mystics can send towards Charles. That also goes for Prince, if Cash and Stokes are scoring, it changes the way Washington defends the pick-and-roll. New York has a few shooters from outside that can hurt Washington if they get going, with three players that shoot 35% or better from beyond the arc. Wiggins shooting the best at just under 40% for the year, if they can get and knock down open shots it puts added pressure on the Mystics defense.
Washington is difficult to defend because there’s not a clear cut “star” so to speak, there’s not necessarily a key player to focus on. There were times during the season in which teams tried to keep the ball out of Meesseman’s hands, but then Dolson would get going. It’s an offense that moves the ball exceptionally well, but their bigs are still the key. Emma and Stef will have some heavy lifting to do in this series, on both ends, but since we’re talking about offense, they must both be assertive. Both are great passers, but to win this series, they’ll have to put pressure on the Liberty defense. Which means attacking their post players. That goes hand in hand with Washington’s perimeter players, they have the type of talents to unlock the New York defense but it starts with a good post presence. The Mystics starting bigs are both shooting over 40% from beyond the arc, they don’t take a ton of shots from deep but they shoot it well enough that it must be accounted for. Washington’s perimeter players must be ready to make the Liberty play for the attention paid to their young bigs, Latta and Lawson will certainly be ready. It’s Bria Hartley, Tayler Hill, and Natasha Cloud that have the ability to swing this series in the Mystics favor. The three young guards have good size, the ability to handle the ball and two of the three can shoot it from beyond the arc.
On the Defensive End
The Mystics have the type of players that can allow them to not double Charles or Prince, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has proven that she is one of the top perimeter defenders in the league. She’s held her own against the Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne (This year’s MVP), and several other top scorers in the league. Allowing Washington to avoid having to send hard double-teams at those players which would open up the floor for their teammates. Both Meesseman and Dolson have proven that they can play good post defense as well, as can Vaughn and LaToya Sanders off the bench. Sanders finished second in the league in swats a game as a reserve, her versatility on defense allows Washington to play three bigs at times. If they can guard both Charles and Prince 1-on-1 and have success, they can apply more pressure to the three other players on the floor in the hopes of having them do what’s out of their roles. Again, those three young guards mentioned earlier play a role on this end of the floor. With their size, they are literally able to switch everything when on the floor together, where as if Latta ends up on a big, a double has to happen. Lastly, Washington must finish each possession with a rebound. They’ve struggled to rebound this season, great defense will be played until the shot goes up, but many teams have stayed in and/or won games due to second chance points.
The Liberty have to have their track shoes on at this end of the floor, the ball moves so much. They have to be ready and able to move and recover for all 24 seconds of each Washington possession. Charles, Stokes and company have to stay out of foul trouble. Meesseman and Dolson can score in the post and from several other areas on the floor. It’ll be a challenge for the bigs to remember that they have to not only hedge, but contest every shot in pick-and-roll situations. The Mystics run a ton of pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop in their offense. The Liberty have to apply enough ball pressure to disrupt the offense, but can’t be beaten off the dribble. It’s a fine line, but they must walk it well to advance to the next round.
It may be redundant, but the players that can turn the tide for either team in this series are a group of youngsters. Only one of which is a starter in Kiah Stokes.
On the New York side of things, it’s Stokes and Boyd. In college, Stokes was overshadowed by the uber-talented Breanna Stewart. Like Stewart, Stokes is able to score from almost anywhere on the floor. I personally think of Stokes as an overgrown small forward, she has the athleticism to go up and contest shots of players her size and taller, but also quick enough to stay with guards if stuck on the perimeter. Her defense has translated almost without issue to the WNBA, it’s when her offensive game translates that will let everyone see how special a player she can be. If she can take a step forward on that end of the floor, it changes this series. She’s the one Liberty big that has the ability to step beyond the arc and shoot the ball, to take an opposing big off the dribble. Boyd is a young player that does a good job in her role, but there’s been times this season when she’s shown how dangerous she is off the bounce. When each team goes to that second unit, much will be on her shoulders to not turn the ball over and break down Washington’s defense.
The Mystics have a trio of young guards that can make a huge impact in this series. Cloud carved out a starting spot a month into the season, the second round pick is the “pass-first” point guard on the team. She’s not a great shooter, but also doesn’t look for her shot a lot, even though her size and handle gives her quite an advantage. The other two are former top 10 picks in their respective drafts, Hartley and Hill would most likely be starters on several other teams in the league. Instead, they give the Mystics firepower off the bench. Hartley’s struggled through injuries and a new role this season, but she’s healthy and comfortable as the postseason begins. Hill has been one of the few consistent contributors off the bench this season, she’s also finished a couple of games in crunch time. If Washington can get the best versions of Hill and Hartley in this series, the Mystics may be given an edge over this tough Liberty team.
Series starts tomorrow night at 7pm Eastern at Madison Square Garden in New York City, who’ll take Game 1?