Eric T’s Playoff Favorites

In this time of social distancing and self-isolation, nostalgia is everywhere. With no live sports on TV, I’ve been getting sucked down the rabbit hole of old NCAA tournament games. Since I have more time on my hands than usual, I figured why not take a trip down Mystics memory lane? I came to DC in 2013 – Coach T’s first year at the helm – and we’ve played 31 playoff games since. Here’s a look back at my seven favorite Mystics playoff contests of the past seven years. Well, with a few honorable mentions and bonus games thrown in. It’s a loose seven. Like I said, we’ve got more time than normal as we prepare to defend our title.

Honorable Mention

2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 1
Mystics 71, Dream 56
Our first playoff game, and win, with the Mystics. This was back when we had conference matchups and a best-of-three series in the first round. Ivory Latta led the charge with 14 points and 7 assists, and our young group played loose and free. We then proceeded to lay an egg at home in game 2 with a chance to close out the series. Game 3 was tighter, and we even took a slim lead into the fourth quarter, but that was an experienced Dream team who went on to make the Finals for the third time in four years.

2017 First Round, Single Elimination
Wings 76, Mystics 86
The first playoff game with the rebooted version of our team – year one of Delle Donne, Toliver, et al. It was also our first experience with the single elimination format that began in 2016. We were confident despite a disjointed regular season and used our big lineup to pound the boards (led by Krystal Thomas’ 17 rebounds). Future Mystic Aerial Powers almost beat us by herself before getting ejected late in the fourth quarter. I like to bring it up sometimes during shooting contests to break her concentration.

2017 WNBA Semifinals, Game 2
Mystics 83, Lynx 93
We received a playoff education in this series. Minnesota blasted us in game 1, and then put the clamps on us in game 3 in DC. But game 2 showed a glimpse of what was to come in future seasons; we led at the half, Elena and Kristi combined for 50 points, and it took a late Lynx surge to get the old Barn shaking. The sweep was humbling and encouraging at the same time – we saw up close what a championship team looked like.

2019 WNBA Semifinals, Game 1
Aces 95, Mystics 97
Rest vs. Rust? Nine days passed between our final regular season game and the start of the semifinals. The Aces played one of the craziest playoff games in league history against Chicago, stared their playoff lives in the face, and came out the other side. In our first playoff game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, we started fast with 30 points in the first quarter. But Vegas rallied with 30 of their own in the second and led by seven at the half. Playoff Emma was born with 27 points and 10 boards, and a controversial no-call on a Kelsey Plum jumper at the buzzer sealed the victory. The rust was off.

2019 WNBA Finals, Game 1
Sun 86, Mystics 95
A professional win. I felt afterwards that our Finals experience from the year before really helped us – we just hit the ground running. Five players scored in double figures, and we kept the Sun at an arm’s length after a big first quarter. It was the only ‘sane’ game of the series, as Elena’s back flared up just minutes into game 2.

Top 7 Playoff Games

7. 2018 Second Round, Single Elimination
Sparks 64, Mystics 96
Ok, the ‘real’ list begins. Full disclosure, I’ve never been more nervous before a game during our Mystics tenure than this one. Everything lined up well for us: we finished the season winning eight of our final nine games, the Sparks had traveled about a million miles in the previous ten days, and LA had some key players banged up. But they played us tough in our final game in Capital One Arena (you might recall the Natasha Cloud buzzer-beater) and could draw on a ton of playoff experience. We would be using the Smith Center at GW as our home court, and I remember running on the National Mall after shootaround thinking that if we could just get this one, we were capable of making a real playoff run.
Turns out I didn’t need to worry. We started hot and never looked back, shooting 57% from the floor and racking up 28 assists. I’m glad our players were calmer than I was.

6. 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 1
Mystics 86, Liberty 83, 2OT
An instant classic. In terms of the actual quality of the game, this one could easily be higher on the list. I loved our 2015 team – we had a great mix of young talent (Emma Meesseman, Stefanie Dolson, Natasha Cloud, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Tayler Hill, Bria Hartley) and savvy vets (Ivory Latta, Kara Lawson, LaToya Sanders, Kia Vaughn, Armintie Herrington). We were rolling midseason before Kara tweaked her back, and despite her being less than 100% I thought we had a chance to make the Finals. We were the #4 seed in the East, but our shooting bigs gave top-seeded New York some trouble.
This game was back-and-forth all the way through, and the Garden was rocking. The Liberty took a three-point lead on a breakaway layup in the final minute, and it was LOUD. Coach T drew up a quick-hitter for Ivory Latta, who was more than happy to fire the game-tying 3-pointer (and stare down half the building on the way back to the bench). Then, in the first overtime, Ivory drove baseline and squeezed a pass to Emma through a crowd of bodies to tie it up again. The second OT was less crazy, but more satisfying.
Unfortunately, we got Tina Charles’d at home in game 2, and lost another nail biter back at the Garden in game 3. A great series, sure, but it felt like a real missed opportunity.

5. 2017 Second Round, Single Elimination
Mystics 82, Liberty 68
The Kristi Toliver game.
There’s one play that always sticks in my mind from this one. KT had actually struggled shooting the ball against Dallas in the first round, and started cold in New York. We trailed by double figures in the 2nd quarter when Kristi missed a 3 from the left wing. But our rebounding machine, Krystal Thomas (aka ‘Big KT’), grabbed the offensive board and kicked it back to Lil’ KT in front of our bench. She let it fly, drained it, and went on to make eight more 3s in one of the great virtuoso performances in league history. As New York ran through their timeouts, I remember everybody just trying to avoid saying anything to Kristi, or touching her, or looking her in the eyes. We all did our part to keep the hot streak going by doing absolutely nothing.
Without this win, and the subsequent chance to play in a best-of-five series against Minnesota, who knows how the 2018 and 2019 playoff runs play out?

4A. 2018 WNBA Semifinals, Game 4
Dream 76, Mystics 97
Elena Delle Donne’s knee injury in game 2 threw a wrench in the whole series. We won game one, held a slim lead late in game 2, and then, poof! – we trailed two games to one with a hobbled superstar.
That being said, I’ve never been more sure of a victory than I was before game 4. Elena was giving it a go (a nice bit of foreshadowing for 2019), Kristi rallied the group with a timely message, and you could just tell our mood had shifted for the better. When Tierra Ruffin-Pratt came out for her pregame warm-ups, she told me that she had “already been in the game since shootaround this morning.” Our energy was off the charts, and we won every quarter to send the series back to Atlanta. The smaller Smith Center provided a raucous home-court advantage, something we remembered as we moved into our new home in Ward 8 for 2019.
Post-game in the locker room, Coach T told everybody to pack their bags for a week because, depending on the Phoenix-Seattle series, we wouldn’t be coming home before the start of the Finals.

4B. 2018 WNBA Semifinals, Game 5
Mystics 86, Dream 81
Game 5 in Atlanta was chaos. Neither team played tight – the Dream led 50-49 at halftime. We had a chance to stretch out a lead late in the third quarter, but Renee Montgomery heaved in an off-balance fadeaway at the buzzer to swing the momentum. Ariel Atkins made a ridiculous catch and score at a key moment in the 4th quarter – part of her coming out party with 20 points and 6 offensive rebounds. Tianna Hawkins gave us 17 huge points off the bench, and we held on in the final minute to secure our first Finals appearance.
While the hats and t-shirts flew around during the celebration, I had to find Monique Currie for a big hug. Making the Finals was monumental for all of us, but who could appreciate it more than a DC native who rejoined the Mystics for one more run?

3. 2019 WNBA Semifinals, Game 4
Mystics 94, Aces 90
Gut-check time. We traveled west with a chance to sweep the series but got bullied a bit in game 3. The public discussion turned to weight rooms, while our internal talk before game 4 focused on imposing our style of play. We knew the physical challenge had to be met, but we also needed to re-establish our spacing, ball movement, and, as some people liked to describe it, run around and shoot a bunch of 3s.
Despite an early deficit, we rallied and managed to claw a lead going into the half. LeBron James and friends, sitting by our bench, particularly seemed to like a Coach T timeout play late in the 2nd quarter that led to an open EDD 3-pointer. As the game wore down, Fire Flames Emma Meesseman made dagger after dagger in front of the Vegas bench. My heart stopped for a second as Dearica Hamby’s potential game-tying 3-pointer went in-and-out. ‘Cloud 9’ iced it at the free throw line and we were headed to the Finals on the back of 13 made 3s.
The adrenaline was pumping well past midnight as we celebrated together in one of Mandalay Bay’s restaurants – ESPN kept replaying the highlights of the game on SportsCenter, and our whole group kept reacting to each play like it was a first time viewing. I can’t remember if Tash reenacted the post-game push-ups.

2. 2019 WNBA Finals, Game 3
Mystics 94, Sun 81
This wasn’t the title-clincher, so it would’ve felt wrong making it #1. But as we get further away from the Finals, I think this is going to go down as the most impressive performance. First of all, thank goodness for the four-day gap between games 2 and 3. We were feeling snakebit after Elena’s back went haywire in game 2, and then Ariel Atkins’ back locked up after practice a couple days later. Suddenly, we needed every minute we could get before we took the floor at a sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena.
At our breakfast film session on the morning of the game, both Elena and Ariel said they wanted to head to the gym early to test out their mobility. Some of our staff went along to watch, rebound, and pass. Personally, it was all a bit surreal standing there three hours before tip-off; I remembered the last Sun home Finals game in 2005, and now we would be on the opposite bench as both teams gunned for their first WNBA Championship. Fortunately, Elena and Ariel felt good enough (relatively speaking – there’s no way they actually felt very good) to start the game and see how it went. It had the feeling of pushing all of our chips to the middle of the table – we didn’t know how their bodies would respond, or what they would have left in the tank for game 4. What we got was a vintage 2019 Mystics performance: a 32-point 1st quarter, 16 total made 3s, and back-to-back-to-back 3s from Playoff Emma to open the 4th quarter (all on the same play, I might add). Kristi and Tash combined for 39 points, 14 assists, and 9 made 3s. Elena drove and finished through contact (How? HOW??!!) late in the 4th, and we had wrestled back control of the series.

Bonus Game. 2019 WNBA Finals, Game 4
Mystics 86, Sun 90
So, I have a hard time separating game 4 and game 5 of this series, because I don’t think we win the deciding game without the second half of this one. Going into game 4, we found ourselves in a position we’d never been in: a chance to win the title. And we played tentative, trailing by 16 at the half. Frustration hung in the air at halftime, mostly because we had not played like ourselves. Coach T’s message was simply to just go out and play Mystics basketball, take it one possession at a time, and we could get back in the game. Incredibly, it was a tie ballgame by the end of the 3rd quarter. The run was the stuff of champions, and it would have been fitting if we grabbed the title right then and there. But Connecticut regrouped and made some big plays down the stretch to force a rubber match back in DC.
One play in particular sticks in my mind. With just over two minutes to play in a tie game, Jasmine Thomas dribbled baseline and looked to kick the ball back to Jonquel Jones at the top of the key. Because of where our bench was situated, we could all see the pass coming, and so could Aerial Powers. AP jumped the passing lane – a sure layup at the other end if she got the steal, and a huge momentum play. The ball must have grazed her fingernail, and actually popped up in Jonquel Jones’ hands on the catch. Kristi rotated, and Jones swung it to Shekinna Stricklen for a side-step 3-pointer. That’s how fine the margins are in playoff basketball – a play that could have haunted us forever. But now it won’t!

1. 2019 WNBA Finals, Game 5
Sun 78, Mystics 89
A blur of a game. An emotional roller-coaster. The atmosphere before tip-off was electric – a heavyweight fight type of feel. I’m not really sure what happened in the first half. I know we didn’t shoot it very well, but we hung in and trailed by 1 point at the break. Elena was moving better, and she had told the coaching staff before the game that she felt like her body was capable of doing more. The 3rd quarter started poorly, and the Sun stretched the lead to 9 points. It was a little quiet and tense in ESA. Then…Playoff Emma emerged. On her first offensive possession of the quarter, she attacked and drew a foul. Then she drove, spun, and scored. Then she kept spinning and head-faking and stepping-through and drawing contact until we had a lead. The entire energy of the building transformed in about two minutes – you could physically feel it shift. Elena caught a second wind and scored on the block, Natasha “Guarantee” Cloud hit some big shots, and the best free throw shooting team of all time iced the game, and the title, in the final minutes. If game 3 was a ‘vintage’ Mystics performance, this one wasn’t. We were 4-19 from the 3-point line, but we pounded the ball inside and grinded it out. I’ve since watched the game back on film, but the final seconds still feel like an out-of-body experience – by the time we shook hands with the Sun coaches and turned around, there was a mass of humanity on the court. As many people have said, it was extremely satisfying to see both Elena and Coach T get a championship. And then, to nobody’s surprise but hers, we crowned a second MVP.
So, let’s do it again sometime?