Mystics vs. Liberty preview: Washington unafraid of WNBA “super team”

This was always the path for the Washington Mystics, one way or another. The WNBA season began with two clear-cut front-runners, the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty, after both organizations added former MVPs and depth during the offseason. They were quickly labeled “super teams,” and the majority of the national conversation centered on two of the sport’s premier markets as they finished with the two best records in the league.

In the meantime, the Mystics brought back the core of their team that lost to the Seattle Storm in the first round of the WNBA playoffs last season, added a few key pieces and kept their championship aspirations. A tumultuous year that included starters missing 53 games to injury and illness plummeted Washington (19-21) to the No. 7 seed and a best-of-three first-round matchup with the No. 2 Liberty (32-8) that begins Friday night in New York.

“That’s where we wanted to be at the start of the year,” Mystics Coach Eric Thibault said. “And we’re maybe just getting them a little earlier than we had mapped out.”

Alyssa Thomas is having the biggest year of her life. The WNBA playoffs are next.

Going through New York will be no easy task for any team, though it’s not a terrible matchup for the Mystics. The teams split their four regular season meetings, including the Mystics’ 16-point win in their season opener in May and a buzzer-beating victory in their regular season finale Sunday. Washington’s record against New York is better than its record against any of the other teams with home-court advantage in the first round: the Aces (1-2), Connecticut Sun (0-4) and Dallas Wings (1-3).

The Liberty has a pair of former MVPs in the post with Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, but its game starts on the perimeter. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot is a five-time all-star who led the league with 8.1 assists per game. Guard Sabrina Ionescu averaged 17 points and broke Diana Taurasi’s WNBA single-season record with 128 three-pointers while shooting 44.8 percent from behind the arc. Thibault mentioned the need to not let the Liberty get out and successfully run in transition as a key to the series.

The Mystics match up better with perimeter-oriented teams than they do against bigger teams, particularly with center Shakira Austin still out with a hip injury. Brittney Sykes, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins have been named to multiple all-defense teams and have consistently harassed opposing guards. The Liberty and Aces are the two highest-volume three-point shooting teams in the league.

“Washington’s a very scary team,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said, “and in particular because they are a team that has the ability to really hone in on the defensive end on the perimeter and wreak havoc and cause you problems. And so when it comes to looking at the top two teams in the league, a Vegas or New York, those are teams [whose] offenses are very predicated on their guard play. If you can make their job harder every possession and take away the three at a high percentage like they did [in the regular season finale], you give yourself a chance.”

Still, the most anticipated individual matchup remains Stewart against Elena Delle Donne. The former MVP forwards have been dueling against each other for years. Stewart was named the Associated Press WNBA player of the year this week after finishing second in the league in scoring (23 points per game), third in rebounding (9.3 per game) and fourth in blocks (1.6 per game). Delle Donne averaged 16.7 points and has been getting more in rhythm after missing 17 games because of injuries.

“If you’re a great player, you like playing the best,” Delle Donne said. “So it’s always great playing against Stewie. Of course it’s always a huge challenge. She can score at will. She’s long defensively, and she’s got really great people around her, so you can’t draw too much attention to her or she’s going to make you pay, spread out to her other teammates. So it’s always a fun challenge.”

Both teams find themselves in an interesting position having just played each other days ago. Thibault said it’s an advantage for coaches who have already put together the scouting report, and both teams got a little more familiar with each other. He called Sunday’s win a playoff prequel, and while there will be tweaks from both sides, personnel and priorities aren’t likely to change much.

The Liberty hosts the first two games Friday and Tuesday, and if necessary Game 3 will be held in Washington on Sept. 22. The ultimate goal remains in reach for a Mystics team that has traversed a rocky and inconsistent season. The first step is knocking off one of the “super teams” that has been the talk of the league since February.

“New York is like one of the ideal matchups,” Sykes said. “It’s kind of like a little love story at this point. That was our first game of the season. Everybody’s been talking about them versus us, versus Vegas. … We’re probably one of the few teams that [had success] playing against the Vegases and the New Yorks.”

Cloud chimed in, “[The media] might not talk about us, but they’re going to talk about us.”

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