WASHINGTON – Natasha Cloud writhed on the floor under the basket while teammates gathered around her Sunday and Entertainment and Sports Arena fell silent. The Mystics’ leader and longest-tenured player would eventually get up and shoot a pair of free throws before checking out for the rest of the game. She limped to the locker room and never returned to the bench.
The starting point guard was officially ruled out with a knee injury, but the team was adamant that holding her out was precautionary.
The Washington Mystics had nothing to play for in their regular season finale – a 95-83 victory over the Indiana Fever – as they already had the No. 5 playoff seed locked up and will face the No. 4 Storm in a best-of-three series beginning Thursday in Seattle. Coach Mike Thibault, however, committed to playing his starters significant minutes Sunday.
Washington closed the season with its second straight win, both against the league-worst Fever.
“Psychologically, I think it’s good to feel good about yourself going into the playoffs,” Thibault said. “Especially with people who have been out of the lineup and Elena [Delle Donne] trying to keep her rhythm a little bit right now.
“I talked to our team about playoff habits.”
The Mystics (22-14) are optimistic about Cloud. Thibault did say she was pretty sore and the team will see how she responds in the next couple of days, but the Mystics were not planning to do on-court work Monday, either way.
The winningest coach in WNBA history wanted to see some “intention” on the floor, and that was part of why he rode his starters. He got what he wanted on the offensive end as the Mystics shot 48.3% and had four starters score in double figures. Delle Donne finished with 22 points, Ariel Atkins added 15, Shakira Austin had 11 points and six rebounds and Cloud scored 10 in 14 minutes. The ball moved crisply, the assist numbers were high (21) and turnovers were low (11).
Washington outscored Indiana 26-13 in the second quarter to take control of the game and never trailed the rest of the way.
The Mystics’ defense had some issues, as the Fever (5-31) shot 56.9%, including 61.5% from three-point range. The Mystics, however, forced 19 turnovers on a season-high 14 steals; Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had five steals and Rui Machida had four as she replaced Cloud in the lineup. Machida also had six assists.
“We knew we wanted to play with more pace in these past few games and we wanted our defense to be cleaner,” Delle Donne said. “Obviously, there were a couple of mishaps here and there, but to finish it off, to stay focused, knowing what’s next is always big to see. So it’s a good win.”
Forward Alysha Clark added, “To be able to get a rhythm and get some confidence for our key players coming off the bench, that’s huge because down the stretch we’re going to need them.”
Here’s what else to know about the Mystics:
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The week ahead
The Mystics plan to do film work Monday and will use a morning session Tuesday as their primary practice before they fly to Seattle later in the day. The group will practice Wednesday with the game set for 10 p.m. Thursday.
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An update on Hines-Allen
Myisha Hines-Allen missed the final two games of the regular season while in health and safety protocols, but she tested negative for the coronavirus Saturday. Thibault said she had only mild symptoms and needs one more negative test to be allowed back with the team. She is expected to be good to go for the start of the playoffs, but her conditioning could be compromised. The Mystics have had players miss a game after coming out of the protocols as they got their conditioning back.
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A milestone for Atkins
Atkins surpassed 2,000 career points and is now the fourth-quickest player to do so in franchise history. The fifth-year guard continues to improve each year and made the All-Star team for the second straight season. She became an Olympian in 2021 and won gold with Team USA.
“I didn’t really know where my place would be in this league. It’s a very hard league to not only be a part of, but to stay in,” Atkins said. “And so to be a part of an organization like D.C. from the jump is a blessing.
“I’ve had great vets truly help me out; they were very welcoming of me from the beginning. I’ve said it time and time again, I’ve been allowed to grow here. So anytime I reach any milestone, big or small, I’m just thankful to have been able to enter the league in such a great space.”
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