WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Washington Mystics fell 95-90 to the Atlanta Dream Wednesday night, ceding the Dream a large lead in the second quarter that Washington was unable to overcome despite a furious comeback in the fourth. The Mystics pulled the game back to within two with 4:34 remaining, but a seven-point run by the Dream put the game out of reach.
The Mystics now face a must win game Friday night in Atlanta in order to force a deciding Game Three in Washington Sunday. The Mystics will have to make several adjustments before Friday's game, as many of the Dream's defensive sets and lineups appeared to leave Mystics players confused and out of sync.
The "Four Little" Lineup
The biggest adjustment that the Mystics will have to make before Friday's game is how to combat the "four little" lineup that the Dream rolled out to start out the game. The Dream decided to start guard Coco Miller while benching forward Ericka DeSouza, who normally starts, and it threw the Mystics off. They seemed surprised by the Dream's lineup change and found themselves down 10-1 before settling down and managing to claw back into the game.
Guard Lindsey Harding said the switch forced the Mystics players to overthink their plan of attack.
"When they were playing four smalls, we were looking so much at the mismatches on the bigs that we were trying to force it so much there instead of just passing it around. Sometimes, you know what, you try, and the mismatch just isn't there. We just have to learn to take what's there."
Center Chasity Melvin also noted that the lineup change cause the Mystics fits in the opening minutes.
"You have to give credit to the coaches of Atlanta. They threw something different at us the first six minutes. They didn't play DeSouza, she has been starting every game, and put a small lineup out there and so they threw us out of our focus of what we wanted to do."
Moreso than any lineup change, it was the porous Washington defense that allowed Atlanta to pull away in the second quarter. Known as a defensive team, Washington found themselves playing Atlanta's game in a frenetic up-tempo race. The theme of the night was dribble penetration, as Atlanta guards often took the ball down the court off one outlet pass, or found teammates with deep established position within the lane.
Both Melvin and center Crystal Langhorne said the loss could be attributed to a lack of defensive effort.
"We can still play defense. We gave them a lot of transition points," Melvin said. "When you give a team a lot of transition point they get their confidence. They got their confidence."
Langhorne was even more forthright in her assessment of the Mystics defensive effort.
"They beat us in transition, they pushed the ball really well, and our defense wasn't up to par."
Rarely did Mystics defenders force the Dream guards to run a half-court set, and Atlanta ended the game with a 16-9 advantage in fast break points. Mystics players compounded the the defensive issues by failing to get back on defense after makes or losing their assignment on switches.
Coach Julie Plank was frank in her assessment of her team's defensive efforts.
"You can't give up 95 points," she said. "I don't care if it's regular season, definitely not in the playoffs. Whether we were in man or in zone, their dribble penetration hurt us a lot, we fouled too much and they pretty much got whatever they wanted."
One of the concerns heading into this playoff series is the relative inexperience the Mystics brings to the playoffs. In retrospect, one of Melvin's quotes before the start of the game was quite telling.
"The team is really confident because we have home court," she said. "We're a young team, and when we made the playoffs last year, we didn't have home court advantage. Not having home court advantage, you can try and talk to get mentally prepared to [win without home court], but in the back of [your] minds, [you] see it's a hard task. [This is true] with whatever team, but especially if you have a young team. With a bunch of vets, you can get mentally focused to try to win on the road more than a young team, so for us, our confidence is boosted by just getting home court advantage."
However, many of the younger Mystics played well. Second-year player Marissa Coleman almost singlehandily willed the team back into the game with clutch shots and gritty defense, while third-year player Matee Ajavon, despite a frustrating tendency to attempt to go one on five against Atlanta, provided a a scoring spark off the bench.
Some of the more experienced players actually were the ones who had subpar games. Questions certainly should be raised about the play of Monique Currie and Katie Smith in particular. Currie hit just one of her nine field goals and Smith often played passively, waiting the game to come to them.
"I got to the basket a couple times, but they were big, so I got a couple shots blocked," Currie said, pausing as she tried to put her struggles into words. "I missed an easy one, I don't know. But I can't find excuses. You got to make shots at this time of the year."
Currie ended up sitting for the final three minutes of the fourth quarter and had a visible scowl on her face as she sat on the bench, though she did consistently rise to offer her teammates support.
If the Mystics want to win Friday to force a final game three Sunday, it is up to the veterans to play at the level their younger teammates demonstrated Wednesday night.
-Mike Prada and Lisa Rotter also provided reporting