Mystics locked into WNBA playoff matchup with Storm

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The Washington Mystics will have to send Sue Bird into retirement if they plan on advancing in the 2022 WNBA playoffs. They’ll also have to knock off an MVP favorite and a former MVP who unceremoniously left Washington during the offseason.

The only first-round matchup clinched so far will pit the Mystics and Seattle Storm next week with the final seeding and date to be determined.

“Yeah, I don’t think we care,” Elena Delle Donne said about the additional hoopla. “For us, it’s like, head down, focus. What do we need to do to be successful?

“All the storylines and all that, they’re huge and great for them. But for us it’s like, let’s stay focused. There’s really nothing that can take us out of our focus and mind-set at this point. Let’s stay locked in on what we need to.”

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The first-round matchup was set after the Connecticut Sun (23-11) defeated the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday night. The Sun holds the tiebreaker over the Storm (21-13) and cannot fall further than the No. 3 playoff slot. That leaves the Storm and Mystics (20-14) in the No. 4 and No. 5 spot, in some order.

The Mystics have to win their final two games — both against the Indiana Fever (5-29) — and have the Storm lose its final two games against the Minnesota Lynx and Las Vegas Aces to leapfrog into the No. 4 seed. Otherwise, the Storm will host the Mystics for the first two games of the three-game series as Seattle holds the tiebreaker over the Mystics.

“[Home-court advantage is] important, but if we don’t get it, it ain’t,” Ariel Atkins said. “We’re out here to win.”

The Storm rolled the Mystics, 85-71, on June 23 in the teams’ lone meeting in Seattle this season, in Bird’s first home game after announcing her plans to retire after the season. The two teams met in Washington for a back-to-back at the end of July and the Storm won the first, 82-77, to clinch the tiebreaker. Delle Donne hit a half-hook through contact from former Mystic Tina Charles with 46.5 seconds left to secure a 78-75 win in the second game.

Up first, however, is a pair of games against last-place Indiana.

“[It’s] in the back of your mind because your staff starts doing preparation,” Coach Mike Thibault said. “It’s interesting, in practicing for this weekend, there are some things that both teams do, Seattle and Indiana, defensively that will serve us well.

“Because ironically, the defense that Seattle plays, a lot of it is instilled from Coach [Gary] Kloppenburg when he was there, and he’s now the defensive coach in Indiana. So we’ll see some similar things. And so that’s probably helpful in our preparation, too.”

The matchup will showcase the top two defensive teams in the WNBA as Washington leads the league with opponents scoring 75.8 points per game while Seattle allows 77.8. The Mystics are the No. 1 team in defensive rating (95.8) with the Storm at No. 3 (96.9).

Storm forward Breanna Stewart is in an MVP race with Aces forward A’ja Wilson as she’s averaging 22 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.7 steals and one block. The only other player in WNBA history to average 21-plus points, 6-plus rebounds, 2-plus assists, 1-plus steal and 1-plus blocks was Stewart in 2018, when she won her MVP award.

She’s just so versatile,” said the Mystics’ Alysha Clark, who played five seasons with Stewart in Seattle. “I think her versatility is the reason why she’s continuously been in the running for MVP. Just because she’s able to do a lot of things. This year you see her more mid-post, midrange a lot more. And obviously she’s shooting at a really high percentage.

So I think that just takes it up another notch. That’s what makes her so tough and one of the best players in the world, it’s just that she’s just so versatile and can score from all levels.”

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The Mystics signed guard Jazmine Jones on Tuesday to add some emergency depth on the perimeter. The 6-foot Louisville product was the No. 12 overall pick to the New York Liberty in 2020 and averaged 10.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.4 steals as a rookie. She shot a career-high 38.3 percent from behind the arc in 2021. Jones was waived by the Liberty in February, picked up and waived by the Fever before signing three seven-day contracts and playing seven games with the Sun this season.

Forward Myisha Hines-Allen missed practice Tuesday as she was being tested to see whether she will be placed in the health and safety protocol.

“Insurance,” Thibault said about signing Jones. “We couldn’t have signed anybody until today cap-wise. We got ourselves under the cap today for the rest of the season. So we’ve been trying to figure how to have some insurance at guard. We debated about some people that really haven’t played in the league versus somebody who’s played in a playoff game and knows what the league’s about.

“[She] can defend. She may never play. I don’t know. But it’s a way to have insurance that we felt like we needed and a 12-person roster.”

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