The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the playoff picture develops, the Mystics keep their surge going

Mystics 78, Liberty 69

Alysha Clark, right, and her Mystics teammates avoided a season sweep from the Liberty on Thursday at Capital One Arena. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Myisha Hines-Allen took a beat to consider the question before carefully choosing her words. Then she adjusted them anyway.

Her Washington Mystics have just eight games remaining after their 78-69 win over the New York Liberty on Thursday afternoon at Capital One Arena. After notching six wins in their past eight games, the Mystics are in fifth place at 17-11 — one game behind the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun and two behind the second-place Las Vegas Aces, who played late Thursday.

The tendency at this point of the season is to start paying closer attention to all of that. After Thursday’s win, Hines-Allen couldn’t disagree.

“I look at when teams win or lose,” she said. “But for the most part, I don’t think I’m like, ‘Oh, I hope this team loses.’ ... Well, I do. Okay. I do look at the standings. Yeah, I do look at it.”

That’s the push and pull that many players and coaches feel this time of year. The politically correct answer is to say teams focus on themselves and take it one game at a time, but that’s rarely the full truth. Most players know exactly where they stand throughout the season, and that only intensifies as playoff scenarios become clearer. The league-leading Chicago Sky became the first team to clinch a playoff spot Wednesday.

“I think I pay attention to the standings all year,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “... I probably pay attention in a sense more on, ‘Is there a couple of teams we can catch here depending on how it goes?’ But I try not to do it too much just because I’ve told the team all along, ‘Play the next game, and let that take care of it.’ ”

Last time out: Mystics lean on their defense for a bounce-back win over the Lynx

The WNBA has a new postseason format for the eight teams that make the cut this summer: Single-elimination matchups and byes are out. All eight teams will play best-of-three first-round series — No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6, and No. 4 vs. No. 5 — with the higher seed hosting the first two games. It shifts to best-of-five for the final two rounds.

The Mystics would travel to take on the Storm if the playoffs started today, but there’s plenty of time for that to change. Washington hosts the Storm for back-to-back games next weekend, followed by a visit from the Aces and a game at the Sky.

Elena Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins said they’re not paying attention to all that just yet.

“I haven’t even looked,” said Delle Donne, who had a game-high 25 points. “My only focus is the next game and winning it. And if we can control that, then standings will be whatever they are.”

“This league is crazy, and you just never really know,” said Atkins, who added 16 points and six rebounds. “So I don’t want to put anything in my head.”

Here’s what else to know about the Mystics’ win:

Sweep avoided

The Liberty won the teams’ first two meetings, but the Mystics bounced back from a slow start and never trailed after halftime. New York scored the first 12 points, but Washington closed the first quarter on a 16-8 run. The Mystics were strong defensively most of the day; they allowed just 11 points in the third quarter and forced 16 turnovers for the game.

“Not much of a conversation — like, ‘Calm the hell down,’ ” Thibault said of the timeout after the Liberty’s early run. “... When we came to the timeout, we were calm. At least the players were reasonably calm — I wasn’t necessarily, walking into the huddle. The good thing about this team is that we’re pretty resilient about that.”

Delle Donne, Atkins and Hines-Allen (13 points, eight rebounds) did most of the heavy lifting offensively. Delle Donne has scored at least 19 points in her past five games — and has at least 25 in three of those.

“I felt like in the second half it was almost like taking turns, like, ‘You go; I’ll go,’ ” she said. “Whoever had the mismatch, we were just trying to attack it.”

Hines-Allen laughed and added: “Just knowing that you’re playing with an MVP, sometimes you just want to get out of her way.

Natasha Howard led the 11th-place Liberty (9-17) with 17 points and 10 rebounds. New York has lost five in a row.

Washington’s next game is Thursday at Dallas.

On the Griner mural

On Wednesday, the Bring Our Families Home Campaign unveiled a mural in Georgetown featuring WNBA star Brittney Griner and other Americans detained abroad. Liberty Coach Sandy Brondello was on hand for the ceremony.

“BG is someone that, obviously, I love dearly, and it’s an unfortunate situation that she’s in,” said Brondello, who coached Griner with the Phoenix Mercury. “I hope that we can get her home soon. But to meet some of the families, that was actually quite touching, to realize so many other stories. BG has put it in the forefront about all these other people that are wrongfully detained overseas. ... We’ve got to put their names out there a little bit more.”

The more Elena Delle Donne plays, the better the Mystics’ offense looks

Camp Day

For Camp Day, the Mystics played in their old home for the first time since 2019. The stands were full of youngsters holding Thundersticks and wearing matching T-shirts.

I think one of the biggest reasons we do this is to introduce your team and what you do to a whole new group of potential fans,” Thibault said. “You hope that a bunch of them go home and beg their parents to take them back. Watch more games on TV, see role models. ... And it’s not just the young girls — it’s the young boys seeing role model women athletes that they can respect.”

Getting out the vote

Thursday’s game was the beginning of a partnership between Monumental Sports and Entertainment and HeadCount to encourage voting. Stations allowed people to register, and that will continue at Capitals, Wizards and Mystics games.

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