The Washington Mystics broke into two groups and lined up for a shooting drill Tuesday afternoon at the end of their first practice of the postseason, each squad trying to make seven shots from one spot before shifting to another location.
As players shuffled from the top of the key to the elbow to the corner of the court and back, each shooter made mental notes. Everything from the arena’s lighting to where the seats are positioned behind the basket to how sticky the floor felt running from one spot to the next got filed away, logged in the back of the Mystics’ minds as they acclimated to George Washington’s Smith Center, their intimate new home for the playoffs.
When third-seeded Washington (22-12 in the regular season) opens its postseason against sixth-seeded Los Angeles (19-15) on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., it won’t be in its usual home, the cavernous, 18,000-capacity Capital One Arena.
Instead the Mystics will battle the 2016 WNBA champions some two miles west, in a 5,000-seat college arena that is playing host for the WNBA playoffs while the venue the Mystics shared with the Wizards, Capitals and Washington Valor undergoes significant renovations.
“It’s probably going to be at capacity,” center LaToya Sanders said of Smith Center. “It’s a nice change, going from the gigantic Capital One where the lower bowl usually has people but the upper is always empty. Sometimes the fans can seem so far away, so I think George Washington is going to give us a nice home-court advantage. It’ll be loud . . . as long as we’ve got a goal and a basketball, I think we’ll be okay.”
For WNBA teams in the playoffs, “home court” often has a loose definition, especially during the most important time of the season.
The Mystics are far from the first team in the league to be uprooted during the postseason. Most franchises play in large facilities that are also used as concert venues and shared with other pro teams, and they are at the mercy of their arenas once the regular season ends.
On Tuesday, the Phoenix Mercury beat the Dallas Wings in the first round of the playoffs at Arizona State’s Wells Fargo Arena because its usual home, Talking Stick Resort Arena, was hosting a J. Cole concert.
Last year, all four teams in the WNBA semifinals faced at least the prospect of being relocated during the playoffs. When a sold-out Ed Sheeran concert at Capital One Arena caused a scheduling conflict with a potential Game 4 semifinal bout against Minnesota, the Mystics booked the tiny, 2,500-seat McDonough Arena at Georgetown. (The move was avoided when the series ended in three games.) The Sparks were booted to a venue more than 25 miles away in Long Beach, Calif., when a Hall & Oates concert was booked at Staples Center. The Lynx had two temporary homes in their 2017 championship season while Target Center in Minneapolis was renovated — first at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, then for the playoffs at Williams Arena back in Minneapolis because of Minnesota Wild preseason NHL games.
Teams understand that some amount of shuffling is part of the deal in the WNBA. The Mystics don’t complain about their relocation, but players do sometimes feel slighted.
“Every team has had to do it this time of year, whether it’s because of a concert or renovations or whatever. I mean, that’s just life,” Mystics guard Kristi Toliver said. “It’s unfortunate to get to this point in the season and have to move around, but there’s so much on the line, we just want to win. Ultimately that’s all that matters.”
Teams such as the Connecticut Sun, whose owner also controls the team’s 10,000-seat arena, don’t have to worry about such scheduling conflicts. That’s one of the perks Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault is looking forward to when Washington opens its own facility in Southeast Washington next season.
The Mystics will play most of their home games in a 4,200-seat arena.
“The problem is that the playoff dates are committed to TV, and it’s hard to move them. But if you’re in an arena like [Capital One] — this year is a little unique because of the construction — but if you have the chance to book something in there a year ahead of time that’s worth a million dollars, you’re going to do it.” Thibault said. “That’s the thing you get stuck with in our league. That’s why it’ll be nice to have our own building where we control more of the dates.”
For now, the Mystics will adjust to Smith Center. The team is genuinely excited about the energy that comes with playing in a small arena.
Washington averaged 6,136 fans in 16 home games this season (attendance wasn’t counted for a forfeit victory over the Las Vegas Aces), so the Mystics expect Smith Center to be packed.
Players were hopeful Tuesday that the atmosphere will give them the kind of advantage that Minnesota enjoyed when it played the Mystics at Williams Arena last postseason.
“It’s kind of like playing in Connecticut, you know. Connecticut always feels bigger than what it is,” Sanders said. “It might have six, seven thousand people, but it feels like 20 because they’re so loud and they’re right on top of you. It’s a good thing. Also next year with us moving to the other arena, it’ll give us a feel of how it’s normally going to be.”
On Thursday, home-court advantage will mean more than just a packed crowd — it means significantly more rest. The Mystics got to sleep in their own beds this week while the Sparks played at home Tuesday night in a single-elimination first-round victory over Minnesota, then boarded a cross-country commercial flight to the Washington area for another win-or-go-home contest.
As if folding six-foot-plus frames into economy seats for several hours wasn’t uncomfortable enough, Los Angeles entered the playoffs with injury concerns. Leading scorer Candace Parker, who was battling a variety of ailments, scored only two points in Tuesday’s 75-68 win. Nneka Ogwumike, the second-leading scorer, is recovering from mononucleosis but had a stellar game Tuesday with 19 points.
Still, Washington is wary of Los Angeles coming to town with momentum.
“They got the jitters out a little bit,” Thibault said. “The home teams didn’t fare well last year. That’s one of the things we talked about at practice.”
The Mystics are counting on home-court advantage to give them a lift.