It seemed easy enough to count out the Washington Mystics at different junctures during the WNBA playoffs.
Elena Delle Donne’s knee injury looked flat-out brutal — and potentially season-ending — when it happened in Game 2 of the semifinals last week. Things appeared bleak when the Mystics were pushed to the brink of elimination after a Game 3 loss in which Delle Donne sat out to rest the bone bruise. And with the Atlanta Dream hosting the decisive Game 5 on Tuesday, and Delle Donne hobbled but playing, Washington still didn’t seem to be in the driver’s seat.
Nonetheless, here the Mystics are, in their first WNBA Finals, a stage on which they’ll again be underdogs — this time against a skilled Seattle club that had the league’s best record. Yet despite what figures to be an uphill battle for Washington, the Mystics have something of a blueprint to work off of in hopes of winning the title when the finals begin Friday night. Above all else, they’ll need to grind the games to a halt as best they can to maximize their chances.
Yes, some of that slowdown would be aimed at helping out former league MVP Delle Donne, who worked tirelessly to make it back from the knee injury last round. But the Mystics’ offense thrives while playing at one of the slowest paces in the WNBA — a contrast from Seattle, which likes to push the tempo when possible.
Washington takes more possessions into the last four seconds of the shot clock than any team, and it’s found success that way. In fact, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology, the Mystics lead the WNBA in efficiency when the clock is down to its last four seconds — not only in terms of points per possession but also in score-frequency rate and free-throw rate.1 That could come in handy given that the team’s already-slow attack has been even more tortoise-like since Delle Donne returned. (While her presence is huge for this offense, her scoring is down in the two games since her injury — 14.5 points per game, off from the 21 she averaged in the regular season. Delle Donne also averaged 30 points per game against Seattle during the regular season.)
The Mystics and Storm have faced off three times this year. Seattle took the first two, while Washington won the August game, which featured the slowest pace of the three, at just 73 possessions per 40 minutes. For context, Seattle’s offense — arguably the best in the NBA — usually is far faster than that (it averaged 83 possessions per 40 minutes during the regular season). Also noteworthy: The Mystics grabbed an eye-popping 35 percent of their own misses that night — up from a season average of 26 percent — giving them ample second chances and allowing them to win the time-of-possession battle with the Storm, who would prefer to get up and down. Given all this, taking care of the ball and limiting the number of possessions against the perceived on-paper favorite — which will host the first two games of the series at KeyArena — would be ideal for the Mystics.
Still, there are a couple of unusual factors that could make the matchup tougher to call one way or the other. For starters, there wasn’t a whole lot of playoff experience on either of these teams entering this postseason — let alone WNBA Finals experience. So there could be some initial jitters. The Mystics, who played their entire regular season home slate at Capital One Arena in D.C., had to host their semifinal round home games at George Washington University because of renovations at their normal home, and now scheduling conflicts will push them to George Mason University — which is in Virginia — for the WNBA Finals.
If there’s a safe bet to be made in these finals, though, it’s that the 3-point shooting will be plentiful. Nine of the league’s top 25 3-point shooters this season, in terms of accuracy, are represented by these two teams alone.2
Another: To have a chance of winning the series, Washington must find a way to at least contain 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart. She scored 25 points in each of the Storm’s first two games against the Mystics this season, but she was held to just 10 — tied for her second-lowest total of the season — during Seattle’s loss in D.C. last month. The 24-year-old, who ranked in the 99th percentile of offensive efficiency this season, according to Synergy, is almost unstoppable. But the Mystics found some success in double-teaming Stewart in the post, a scenario in which the Storm scored only a third of the time — and committed a turnover 17 percent of the time.
With Delle Donne at less than 100 percent, Kristi Toliver (who scored 38 points combined in the first two games against Seattle) and Ariel Atkins (who averaged 16 points against Seattle this season while shooting 47 percent) will likely need to shoulder more of the offensive burden against the Storm. Meanwhile, Sue Bird — who’s won two WNBA titles already with Seattle, the most recent in 2010 — will almost certainly stretch Washington’s defense after her late, ice-in-veins showing in Tuesday’s Game 5, marking Diana Taurasi’s first loss in a winner-take-all game.
With all the spacing on the court in these finals, both teams could find it difficult to truly settle in on the defensive end. And against an uptempo team like Seattle, that wants to push the other way in transition, Washington taking every possession to the end of the clock could throw the Storm even more out of rhythm. It could be Washington’s best bet here, as the Mystics and Delle Donne vie to overcome their last, and most daunting, hurdle.