On paper, this series should be easy to call. Look at the Dream roster: It has more world class players and thus should be expected to win. However, the games are not played on paper and the subplots in this series could make it much more competitive and interesting than a casual fan might anticipate.
In spite of what pundits predict, the WNBA narrative often does not behave according to the script laid out for it.
Washington was the worst team in the league in 2012, winning just five games – and at season’s end, Trudi Lacey was replaced by Mike Thibault. Then, the team got unlucky in the draft lottery and only secured the fourth pick in spite of having the worst record. With only a rebuilding year and another trip to the lottery expected prior to the 2013 season, the Mystics nonetheless have scrambled into the third seed thanks to a combination of good coaching, an infusion of young talent from a superiorly crafted series of draft picks and player acquisitions, and finally injuries which seriously depleted rosters of competing Eastern Conference teams.
For Atlanta, the 2013 WNBA summer has been a tale of two seasons. The Dream opened 10-1 through June, only to have the injury bug strike soon thereafter. Atlanta finished the season at 17-17 which math majors have already realized that the team closed out the July through September schedule 7-16. And the finish wasn’t exactly strong, as the Dream lost their last four contests.
Washington also finished level at 17 up and 17 down, but took a totally different path to get there. If you divide the season into four parts (through June, then each calendar month), the club went 5-6, 4-4, 5-5 and 3-2. That consistency reflects that, unlike the injury-plagued Dream, the Mystics essentially went through the 2013 season without any significant player absences.
This series should be a grinder, bad for television ratings but good for hard-fought games. The Dream relies heavily on its two all-stars while the Mystics does not have one of the top ten players in the league. DC is, however, very resilient, with a lot of players who on a given evening can make a significant contribution. The equalizer could be Dream injuries (still not healed) which have plagued the club since early July. Meanwhile the Mystics continue the run of good health for its young, relatively inexperienced but deep roster.
Washington has won its last three contests while Atlanta comes into the series losing its last four. However three of those losses occurred after the Dream had secured the second seed (by Washington beating Indiana on Sept. 10). History has also shown that the finish of the regular season is often irrelevant once the playoffs start. With both teams ending 17-17, the Dream used its tie-break advantage to secure the second seed by winning the season series three games to two and thus open at home Thursday (8 p.m. ESPN2).
Past playoff history and 2013 regular season meetings
In postseason play, these teams have met only once, in 2010, with the Dream (coming off a poor regular season finish) sweeping the regular season champion Mystics in the first round.
In 2013, Atlanta took the regular season series three games to two:
June 2 at Washington - Dream 73-63
June 28 at Atlanta - Dream 86-75
Aug. 18 at Atlanta - Dream 76-58
Aug. 23 at Washington - Mystics 74-64
Aug. 28 at Atlanta - Mystics 85-80
Breaking down the matchups by position
Very good news for Atlanta fans: Erika de Souza has decided to remain with the Dream throughout the playoff run, according to Atlanta media rep Tonya Alleyne. Brazil had asked de Souza to join its national team in Mexico starting this weekend as it attempts to qualify for the 2014 FIBA World Championships, and many thought de Souza would give her national team priority. Her decision to stick with the WNBA, gives the Dream the steadiest, highest quality performer in the low post in WNBA 2013 this side of Sylvia Fowles. Versus the Mystics, she has had strong double-figure outings in four of the five contests. DC will likely counter with Kia Vaughn, who has started all games in September, although Michelle Snow has started more games for the whole season. As for minutes, Vaughn averages 20 to Snow's 16.8 per game but even together they do not equal de Souza's 12.9 ppg and shoot 5 percent less from the field. On the boards, if you throw in Dream backup center Aneika Henry, the Dream are stronger by all measures at this position. Solid edge to Atlanta.
Sancho Lyttle has played only six games for Atlanta this year and is not likely to see action in this series as she is still recovering from a broken bone in her foot. Thus projected backup Le'Coe Willingham will likely continue to start in her place opposite all-star Crystal Langhorne, who has continued to add to her game (range and some righthand drive) with 12 ppg versus Willingham's 4.1 ppg. (She only reached eight once versus DC) One caution to note: Langhorne has been in a slump for the last nine games with only three double-digit showings (and below her average of 51.5% shooting percentage) during that period. For the Mystics to win this series, she needs to return to all-star form. Still edge to Washington.
The Dream needs to make hay here, as on her (many) good nights, Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry is All-WNBA. On her best nights, in fact, she looks like the league MVP -- but on her worst nights, she is just a high-volume shooter who scores a lot of points by taking a lot of shots.
In the five games versus the Mystics, McCoughtry has been all over the map as to shot volume in scoring her double-figures points. She is dangerous when it comes to steals be she be a bit too aggressive in that area at times, resulting in open opposition shots. Her opposite number is likely to be Monique Currie, who is really the only player on the Mystics' roster with the size, build and experience to guard Angel. Offensively, she scores about half of McCoughtry's 21.5 ppg but like her is up and down in shooting percentage to get her points. Defensively, Currie is not as quick as the Atlanta small forward but uses her strong body to help her defend. Edge to Atlanta, though it not as great as one might think if past games in this series mean anything.
Who is starting here? Both teams have a lot of options at the shooting guard slot, but none special. On paper this looks like a matchup of Atlanta's Armintie Herrington (coming of a shoulder injury and prior to that a concussion) and Matee Ajavon, who started 27 of 34 games. But both teams have at least two other players who could receive double-digit minutes at shooting guard but neither team has had a star at this position in 2013. Call this one about equal.
No. 12 Ivory Latta leads the Mystics in scoring with 13.9 points per game and 4.4 assist. (Photo by Teri Priebe)
Ivory Latta has gotten her double-digit points be it sometimes at the cost of a high volume of shots versus Atlanta. Individually, she is better than either Dream lead guard – however, if you combine the Dream's Jasmine Thomas, really more of a shooting guard by WNBA standards, and rookie Alex Bentley (third-best WNBA rookie performer for the season behind Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner), more of a true lead guard, and then add in the contribution of DC backup point Nadirah McKenith, it is close to even. Register another draw.
One way to look at bench is how deep will a coach go with the game in doubt. Our answer is the Mystics will go at least nine deep (no Quanitra Hollingsworth and sometimes only a few minutes per game of Nadirah McKenith) while the Dream bench is shortened by the Sancho Lyttle injury, forcing everyone up a place. Courtney Clements and Ruth Riley rarely play at critical moments unless there are no other Atlanta options. With Aneika Henry struggling for most of this year, coach Fred Williams is down to essentially seven player options as to who might positively impact the game. In spite of this, Atlanta may have the single most important bench option on either team in Tiffany Hayes, whose explosive energy has helped the Dream win several games this season.
For the Mystics, it is hard to believe Tierra Ruffin-Pratt went undrafted given her performance this summer. Second-round pick Emma Meesseman from Belgium is just 20 years old and has a chance to be a WNBA starter in a few years if she continues to play in the league (which few European players do). Perhaps the best news from the bench for the Mystics might be that first-round pick Tayler Hill has averaged 13 ppg on 46.6% from the field over the last seven games of the season after struggling for most of the year.
In three of the five games, the Dream bench outscored the Mystics reserves, thus only a slight edge to DC -- but more so if more Dream players besides Lyttle can't go in the series.
No disrespect to Atlanta coach Fred Williams, who has done a creditable job in the face of injuries and player absence (Sancho Lyttle missed six games in June playing for Spain) but Washington was not expected to make the playoffs in 2013. Mike Thibault is a multiple WNBA Coach of the Year recipient (2006 and 2008 while with Connecticut) and may win the award again this year. Give an edge here to the Mystics.
During the regular season, the Dream shot the ball slightly better (42.3% to 41.3%) from the field compared to the Mystics, who were significantly more successful from behind the arc (34.7% to 27.5%). Atlanta's offense comes largely from three areas (quick strike transition, de Souza down low and McCoughtry from everywhere), while the Mystics tended to be more balanced in its scoring load but seemed to be more on solo basis in the quartercourt as they often broke down offensively. Point guard Ivory Latta still is often thinking shot first (although improved in this area over her early years in the league). Finally, while having a deeper bench, you still just don't know who is going to show up offensively for any one game for Washington. Slight edge to the Dream here.
Neither team normally zones much but don't be surprised to see some employed by the Mystics as the Dream are often mediocre at best when shooting on the perimeter. Stats show both teams are fairly similar in stopping the opposition at 41.3% for the Mystics to 42% for the Dream. Rebounding stats are pretty similar although the Dream had a slight edge on the boards in the majority of the games between the clubs. Atlanta does create more steal opportunities off its defense as shown by its 10.2 to 7.5 edge in this category. All said and done, call this area about even.
Atlanta has the home court advantage and has won once in DC. Of course the biggest intangible could be a sudden change of gears if de Souza unexpectedly departs for Mexico if the Brazilian National Federation can somehow turn up the heat on her. Barring this, give Atlanta a slight edge here.
Expected to continue to be without world class forward Sancho Lyttle, Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza must play at all-star level to win this series for Atlanta. If Latta goes off and one of the Mystics’ rookies steps up above the norm, this series could swing the other way. Assuming the Atlanta players (particularly Erika de Souza) participate as expected, the Dream have the necessary ammunition. Adding up the above categories, Atlanta has a slight edge and thus we look for the Dream to take the series in three, putting the last two and a half months of struggle behind them.