The New York Liberty didn’t end up catching the Las Vegas Aces for the No. 1 seed in, but they were the best team in the league in the second half of the season, closing on a 14-2 run to win a franchise-record 32 games. One of those defeats was to the Washington Mystics on the final day of the regular season, and now, as they begin their quest for the first title in franchise history, they’ll have to get through them in the first round.
This was a frustrating season for the Mystics, who started off strong and were in the mix to prove themselves as the “best of the rest” behind the Aces and Liberty until they were decimated by injuries. Key figures such as Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin all missed significant time, which is why they wound up with the No. 7 seed and a sub-.500 record. They still aren’t 100%, but they’re closer than they were in the middle of the season, and will be hoping to spring an upset.
Here’s everything you need to know about this series:
(2) New York Liberty vs. (7) Washington Mystics
- Date: Friday, Sept. 15 | Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
- Location: Barclays Center — Brooklyn, New York
- TV channel: ESPN 2 | Live stream: fubo (try for free)
- Odds: Liberty -9 | O/U: 162.5
Game 2: Mystics at Liberty, Tuesday, Sept. 19 — 7 p.m. ET
Game 3*: Liberty at Mystics, Friday, Sept. 22 — TBD
Players to watch
Liberty: Jonquel Jones
Breanna Stewart is the Liberty’s best player, but the one to watch in this series is Jonquel Jones. The former MVP got off to a slow start this season but rounded into form as the summer went along and was a major reason the Liberty looked so dominant in the final few months. The team was 13-1 when she double-digit shot attempts, and the Mystics are going to be without Shakira Austin for Games 1 and 2.
Mystics: Brittney Sykes
We all know what Elena Delle Donne can do, but let’s keep an eye on Brittney Sykes in this series. She was signed primarily for her defense but had a breakout season on the offensive end, and was a major reason the team stayed afloat despite the injuries. If the Mystics want to keep up with the Liberty’s high-powered offense, they’re going to need Sykes — their best off-ball creator — to continue scoring at a high level. Can she keep it up in the playoffs?
Three keys to the series
No team in WNBA history has ever launched 3-pointers like the Liberty. They set new records this season for attempts per game (29.7), makes per game (11.1), total attempts (1,187) and total makes (444). And they did that while leading the league in percentage (37.4).
Their volume and accuracy from behind the arc becomes a math problem for most opponents, who are unable to keep up with the long-range attack. That could be especially true for the Mystics, who, while they like to shoot 3s, are not all that great at doing so. They were seventh in the league this season at 33.6% from downtown, and were prone to going extremely cold. Just for the sake of comparison, the Liberty’s fewest 3-pointers made this season was six, which happened one time; the Mystics had 13 games of six or fewer 3s.
The one potential concern for the Liberty in this department is that because 3s are such an integral part of their offense — 37% of their points came from downtown this season — a cold shooting night can leave them in trouble. And in a short series with a 2-1 format, all it takes is one game where you can’t hit anything to be facing elimination on the road.
In the June 25 matchup between these two teams, second-year center Shakira Austin jumped into the passing lane and deflected a pass from Sabrina Ionescu. Unfortunately, as she sprinted to try and recover the loose ball, she took an awkward fall and collapsed to the floor in pain. The result was a hip strain that kept her off the floor for nearly two months.
When she returned the floor in mid-August, along with a number of other influential Mystics players, the team started to heat up again. They went on a 4-1 run after she came back, including a win over the Aces. But on Aug. 31, she re-aggravated the injury and has not seen the floor since. Head coach Eric Thibault told reporters earlier this week that she will not play in Games 1 and 2.
That is a huge loss for the Mystics, particularly on the defensive end. During the regular season, the team had an 89.3 defensive rating in 440 minutes with Austin on the floor, and a 103.2 defensive rating in the 1,165 minutes she did not play. Part of that, of course, is her absence coincided with other starters missing time, but her impact is obvious. She’s a long, active, athletic presence on the backline, and the best rebounder on a team that struggles in that department as it is.
While the Liberty do prefer to attack from the 3-point line, Austin’s absence puts Jonquel Jones in line for a huge series. The Mystics won’t have anyone to match up against her on the block, or keep her off the glass. Jones was third in the league this season at 2.6 offensive rebounds per game, and the Liberty as a team recovered 30.8% of their misses, which also ranked third in the league. If the Liberty are able to generate a number of extra possessions, it will make it even more difficult for the Mystics’ offense to keep up with them.
Washington’s guards vs. New York’s perimeter defense
Overall, the Liberty were one of the best defensive teams in the league this season, finishing third in defensive rating at 99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. But much of that success was predicated on having two of the best interior and help defenders in the league in Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones.
On the perimeter, they have some obvious weak points in Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot, who can have trouble keeping opponents in front off the dribble. That’s notable heading into this series because the Mystics have three aggressive and athletic guards in Brittney Sykes, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins.
In the regular four season meetings between these two teams — which finished 2-2 — that trio combined to average 51.9 points, 15.2 rebounds and 11.8 assists per game on 46.1% shooting from the field. If the Mystics’ backcourt can conssitently get into the paint and cause havoc, they could make this an interesting series.
The Mystics are severely underseeded as a result of their injuries, and this should be a semifinal matchup. In a short series with a 2-1 format, all the Mystics need to do is steal one game to have the winner-take-all contest at home, and that gives them a chance. However, the Liberty’s high-powered offense and overall talent advantage should be too much for the Mystics to overcome, especially without Shakira Austin for Games 1 and 2. Pick: Liberty in 2