Small pockets of boos could be heard circulating through Verizon Center during the third quarter of the Washington Mystics’ 63-45 loss to the Atlanta Dream on Saturday night. The jeers began when the Dream, leading by 16, pulled down four offensive rebounds on one possession, the last leading to an Erika de Souza layup that gave Atlanta its largest lead.
That possession was a microcosm of the Mystics’ problems during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Dream had more second-chance opportunities (18 offensive boards) than Washington and made 11 more field goals to send the series back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 3 on Monday night. The quick turnaround affords the Mystics little time for self-reflection — and even less time to rediscover the offensive identity they need to keep the season alive.
“We just have to regroup, focus. Just get back the little things, get back to the basics. Get back to, like, thinking about how we won the first game,” Mystics guard Ivory Latta said. “It’s do or die. Win or go home. And that’s how we’re going to approach” Game 3.
Plenty of energy had been pumped into the home crowd leading into Game 2. Washington Wizards stars Bradley Beal and John Wall sat courtside, Mystics Coach Mike Thibault was awarded the WNBA coach of the year trophy in a ceremony before the game and Washington’s prospect of advancing to the conference finals seemed favorable considering the Mystics thoroughly beat Atlanta, 71-56, on Thursday, holding the Dream to 26 percent shooting.
But the roles were reversed Saturday. Washington shot just 25 percent from the field and scored a season-low 45 points. The Mystics will need more production out of their starting five to contend in Game 3 after the group combined to shoot 5 for 31 from the field for just 16 points.
“When your starting lineup has five made field goals, shoots 5 for 31 and has one assist amongst them, it’s hard to win,” Thibault said. “It’s just hard to win.”
Atlanta starting forward Le’coe Willingham was set to make her 40th career appearance in the WNBA playoffs Saturday but was scratched because of a knee injury. Dream Coach Fred Williams said following the win that Willingham is “probably doubtful” to play Monday.
Atlanta forwards Angel McCoughtry (20 points, five rebounds) and de Souza (11 points, 15 rebounds) stepped up in the absence of Willingham in Game 2. McCoughtry and teammate Armintie Herrington were both named to the WNBA’s all-defensive first team Saturday, while de Souza was named to the second team, and their pressure on the perimeter during the series was noted by Latta after Game 2. Atlanta always denies the ball being fed to the guards, she said, and one of the focuses for Game 3 is becoming more efficient in getting the ball to Washington’s interior. The Mystics’ starting front court combined for just five points and nine rebounds in Game 2.
“It’s not X’s and O’s. It’s about who’s playing harder. I think they denied a little bit harder. They boxed out a little bit harder” Saturday, said Mystics forward Crystal Langhorne, who was held scoreless and had just three rebounds after posting a double-double in Game 1. “They’re crowding the paint. . . . We just have to finish shots when we get it in there.”
Thibault was encouraged by how his team played on the road in Game 1. In addition, the Mystics’ loss on their home floor followed an intriguing trend so far in the WNBA playoffs. With the exception of Minnesota’s home win over Seattle in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Friday, no team had won on its home floor through Saturday (though Indiana did so Sunday). Washington can only hope the trend continues Monday in Atlanta, with the winner advancing to meet Indiana in the conference finals later this week. The Fever eliminated the top-seeded Sky in two games.
“I don’t know if it’s the nerves of the players playing at home. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s been kind of an interesting phenomenon so far in the playoffs,” Thibault said. “I guess we need to go on the road.”