Sat, October 23, 2021

international

Mystics flop against Liberty with playoff spot on the line


NEW YORK - Natasha Cloud walked into a cavernous room in the bowels of Barclays Center, sat on a platform and stared straight ahead. As technical difficulties played havoc with the video teleconference equipment, irritation radiated off the Washington Mystics leader, clad in a black hoodie with her hair pulled back in her trademark game-day bun.

Cloud's smile can light up a room, but her fury is never far away. A 91-80 loss to the New York Liberty in a game that would have clinched a playoff berth brought out the anger.

Washington (12-19) still can clinch the final playoff spot with a win against the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday because it holds a tiebreaker against the Los Angeles Sparks (12-19). A loss eliminates the Mystics because the Liberty (12-20) now holds the tiebreaker over Washington.

"We didn't handle business tonight," Cloud said. "We didn't come in ready to play. We didn't come in ready for the game scheme. And we didn't buy in completely. That's frustrating when our season is on the line.

"I think we made them look like all-stars."

The Mystics walked onto the floor Friday as the veteran team that had missed the playoffs just once since 2013. They had four days to prepare for a win-and-you're-in showdown against the Liberty. That did not show during the 40 minutes of game time.

The young Liberty had lost eight straight, a streak that cost it control of its destiny as their season spiraled out of control. New York, however, was the more poised and focused team as it built a 20-point first-half lead that got as high as 24 early in the second half.

The Liberty was efficient all night, shooting 51.6% from the field and 45.5% from 3-point range. The team knocked down seven first-half 3s en route to setting the WNBA single-season record with 321.

Natasha Howard finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds for New York. Sabrina Ionescu ran the show all night with 22 points, nine assists and five rebounds, and Sami Whitcomb added 13 points and seven rebounds. Rebecca Allen helped put the Mystics in a hole with three first-half baskets from behind the arc.

"If we don't buy in on the defensive end, we're not going to win, period," Cloud said. "I don't care what we do on offense. ... It doesn't matter how many points we score if we don't play defense and we don't buy into individual matchups and then collectively as a team. So that's the frustrating part that this has been all season long that we've been harping on the defense.

"I don't think we took pride in individual matchups and knowing players' tendencies and keeping people out of the middle of the floor and playing or forcing to the baseline side. Our weak side wasn't there. . . . We just need to buy in defensively because that was embarrassing for us defensively."

Ariel Atkins, who missed the past two games following the death of her grandmother, led a second-half rally and finished with 29 points. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough added 12 off the bench, and Tina Charles had 10 points and seven assists while routinely double-teamed. The Mystics cut the lead to 81-76 with 4:25 remaining, but the Liberty closed on a 10-4 run. Atkins, who played with a heavy heart, plainly said that if teams don't get stops, teams don't win basketball games.

"The only reason I'm back here is because of my team," Atkins said as tears welled in her eyes. "I'm having a hard time playing basketball. But the only reason I'm here is because of them. So I'm not worried about nothing else. My family got me back home. I'm here for my team. So it is not about scoring this, scoring that. We're trying to win basketball games. They held me down, so I'm here for them right now."

The Mystics went into halftime trailing 47-29 after an ugly 20 minutes on both ends of the floor. Both teams opened the game playing at an extremely high level, but the Liberty closed the first quarter on a 11-3 run that opened things up in front of a raucous Brooklyn crowd.

Energy wasn't the problem for the Mystics, but execution was. New York continuously found good looks on the offensive end and made Washington pay. The Liberty shot 53.6% from the field and 63.6% from behind the arc as four of five starters buried at least one 3 in the first half. Allen was 3 of 4, and Ionescu was 2 of 3.

The Mystics had every player available except Elena Delle Donne (back). The team was without Coach Mike Thibault, who missed his first game since 2017 after he entered the league's health and safety protocol after testing positive for the coronavirus. Associate coach Eric Thibault, Mike's son, was a head coach for the first time.

"The most obvious thing was we helped off some people we weren't supposed to help off," Eric Thibault said. "When you talk about, for three days, Rebecca Allen spacing the floor and you've got to be careful about leaving her, and then we left her several times in the first half. We did a better job in the second half after we kind of regrouped. Had a few miscommunications in the second half. . . . Some personnel breakdowns defensively and then some coverage breakdowns even into the second half.

"It's hard to put yourself in that position on the road in a big game."

Published : September 18, 2021