Last week, I talked about how the Phoenix Mercury were the only team with a winning record that hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet. That is mostly true today as they precariously sit above .500 with a 14-13 record. However, with five teams sporting a winning record with less than 10 games left, the other three teams set to make the playoffs are worth a look. Chicago and Minnesota are running away with the season behind their respective young players Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore, respectively. The Los Angeles Sparks aren’t too far behind, riding on the back of Candace Parker‘s monster season. But down toward the bottom of the standings, Seattle is looking for more buffer room between itself and San Antonio, while Indiana and New York are trying to pry themselves away from that fifth seed. Indiana is experiencing a post-championship malaise and New York is trying to find itself like a backpacking college student. Cappie Pondexter has decided she wants people to call her “point guard” now. All that underachievement has allowed the Washington Mystics to appear in the picture.
The Mystics sent two players to the WNBA All-Star Game this year, Ivory Latta and Crystal Langhorne. Latta is a fiery guard who’s bounced around the league some but has found a comfortable home in D.C. This was her first all-star selection as she’s evolved into one of the top point guards in the league. Her shooting percentage and point totals are down this year, but she’s increased her assists and cut down on turnovers, all while playing the most minutes of her career and without missing a game. Langhorne is a versatile power forward who had her third all-star appearance. She is a very good offensive rebounder and a slick scorer in the post. From the pinch post to the low post, she is quick and smooth enough to find her shot, and also strong enough to make space without moving her feet. She’s the only player on the team shooting above 50 percent and Washington needs her scoring more than anyone’s. Both get to the line their fair share, and helpfully Latta has been shooting a career best 90 percent clip this season.
Behind their two all-stars, the Mystics have swingwoman Monique Currie and another quick guard, Matee Avajon. Currie is a rangy veteran, able to fill in most roles when needed. Avajon is a fifth-year guard who seems to be coming into her own after overextending herself in 2011 and regressing in 2012. The starting lineup is capped off with center Kia Vaughn, who has been on a scoring tear of late. She dropped 13 points last week in the first quarter of their game against the Chicago Sky. It was part of a tear that the Mystics have become known for this year. They’ve been putting up huge first quarter numbers before falling off a bit down the stretch. They just don’t seem to have enough in the tank as the game goes on. There is reason for hope, though.
Washington is coming off a decisive win against the Atlanta Dream where it battled for the full 40 minutes, and played its best ball in the fourth quarter. It was reassuring for a team that hasn’t been able to look like a top team in the East all year, especially after a solid showing against Chicago two days prior. The Mystics aren’t a great 3-point shooting team, but they execute a lot of off ball screens that space the floor for them. They run a lot of curls and fades off down screens to get their guards open, and also clear out room for the bigs when the defense steps out to cover a guard running to the three point line. It’s what has allowed Vaughn and Langhorne to go to work with single coverage. Washington doesn’t have the best offense, but its bigger problem is the other side of the floor.
A big distinction on the Mystics roster is the height disparity of the players. Besides Currie and Langhorne, no one in their rotation is taller than 5-foot-8 and shorter than 6-4. In a league that rewards versatility even more than the men’s game, not having much of a mixture between bigs and smalls is not ideal. They struggle to find matchups when getting back in transition and don’t have the luxury of being able to switch everything on defense. It leaves small guards often overmatched and front-court players unable to help and rotate back in time. This is a gaping weakness, but the Mystics have worked to plug it up by deploying some of their four rookies in spot minutes to get the most out of their legs. Now that the season is winding down, Washington stands to only face East Coast teams. This will make strategy simpler, and even more so once the playoffs begin. The best-of-three series don’t make it too hard for an upset. Maybe the Mystics will pull out enough consistent basketball to make it interesting. Too late to stop now.
Sidebar: THE WNBA NEEDS TO EMBRACE ITS DANCERS IN THE CROWD! While Oakland A’s games will have a bunch of people doing the “Bernie Lean” together and the Portland Trailblazers are known to put a camera on goofy white dudes gesticulating at god-knows-what, the WNBA always has the biggest ratio of dancers in the crowd. And they’re good! The fans are dancing during timeouts, during play, no matter what song is playing. Unlike the stuffy rich folks in the good seats in more successful leagues, here there are adults and kids, men and women (and most likely others who are less firmly defined) bopping and wiggling all over the place. There’s gotta be ways to get this more involved in the experience. Halftime dance contests perhaps?