Mystics ready to meet Sparks in Round 2 of WNBA Playoffs

The series between the Mystics and the Sparks this season has been one to remember in more ways than one. Back in early July, head coach Mike Thibault got his 300th career victory in L.A. Last week, Washington took the season series 2-1 with a fiery win on its home court thanks to a Natasha Cloud buzzer-beater.

For an encore, the two teams will meet in the WNBA’s Second Round in a win-or-go-home matchup on Thursday night in D.C. The game will be played at George Washington University’s Charles E. Smith Center, with tipoff scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

Regardless of their status as a No. 6 seed in this year’s playoffs (the Mystics have the No. 3 seed), the Sparks are still the team that took the Lynx to Game 5 in last season’s WNBA Finals. They still boast stars in Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, and Riquna Williams along with a deep bench. Moreover, their Round One win over Minnesota came with Parker scoring just two points. Chelsea Gray exploded for 26 points Tuesday, while Ogwumike and Williams added 19 and 17 points, respectively.

Los Angeles possesses plenty of firepower, but it will have to play the Mystics just two days following an opening round victory over Minnesota on Tuesday in Los Angeles. The cross-country travel and short turnaround should benefit Washington, though the Mystics know that a playoff atmosphere and the Sparks’ pedigree can compensate for fatigue.

“They have that championship experience,” said head coach Mike Thibault on Wednesday. “For us it comes down to little things, making sure you win the hustle plays, making little adjustments. It’s probably going to come down to a couple of possessions.”

In last week’s nail-biting 69-67 victory, Mystics star Elena Delle Donne led a balanced Washington effort with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Three others chipped in 10 or more points (new addition Aerial Powers posted a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds), while Tierra Ruffin-Pratt tallied nine on the night. Delle Donne knows they’ll need that same effort Thursday night to take advantage of the small edge they can gain from being the home team and the higher seed with a Round 1 bye.

“I feel like we’ve been waiting around a little bit,” said Delle Donne. “But we’ve been able to get some rest and prepare. They have a tough travel schedule, so we need to be ready to push the pace right away from start to finish.”

At this point in the season, the Mystics and Sparks know each other well. They know that Thursday’s game will not feature a lot that the teams haven’t seen from one another this season, which has put an emphasis on the details for Washington.

“It’s about the little things and making the most out of every possession,” said Delle Donne on Wednesday. Thibault echoed her sentiment about attention to detail and dictating the tempo.

Washington’s pair of wins over Los Angeles coupled with a home-court advantage figure to add to the team’s confidence. The Charles E. Smith Center’s smaller environment can only help, and the Mystics know that the more noise that comes from the D.C. faithful, the better.

“I think that the crowd being right on top of us will give us an edge at home,” said Thibault. “Our players are kind of excited about going to a smaller building.”

“We need our sixth man,” said Delle Donne.

At the end of the day, the players and coaches alike know that Thursday’s game will come down to consistent intensity and execution. The home team with wins in eight of its last nine games is ready for the beginning of another long playoff run.

“Any playoff game is going to be intense no matter what,” said Thibault. “It’s survival mode. It’s win or go home. You have to go out there and not leave anything behind.”