Mystics enter Game 2 of playoff series vs. Liberty focused on effort

NEW YORK — Elena Delle Donne viewed the question as absurd last week. The Washington Mystics’ star was asked whether there were any 11th-hour pieces of inspiration for the team before its playoff opener against the New York Liberty. Delle Donne all but dismissed the notion.

“If you have to say something to get people ready for playoffs, you’ve got a big problem,” Delle Donne said. “If you need someone to pump you up for this moment, you’ve got a big issue.”

But in the wake of Friday’s 90-75 Liberty win that left the Mystics one game from elimination in the best-of-three series, the conversation has centered precisely on effort — and the Mystics’ lack thereof in Game 1. Guard Brittney Sykes cited it outside the team’s Barclays Center locker room. Coach Eric Thibault looked at the stat sheet and mentioned getting beat on 50-50 balls and outrebounded during the second and third quarters (after Washington sprinted out to an early lead) and was critical of his team’s defense when New York screened out higher on the floor.

“To me, that is effort,” Thibault said. “It’s, ‘I’ve got to sprint back, and I’ve got to turn and be ready to guard the ball.’ But part of it is: ‘The ball changes hands, I don’t have six to seven seconds to get ready to defend. I’ve got to be urgent and ready right off the bat.’

“It’s probably mental effort as much as physical.”

Mystics enter playoff series vs. Liberty as ‘very scary’ underdogs

“I wouldn’t say it’s that,” Delle Donne said Monday. “Maybe sometimes you’ll see nerves, and it translates and almost looks like that. But I wouldn’t say our group didn’t have effort. We’re in the playoffs. I hope to God everybody’s playing with effort. Often times that’ll be nerves and people second-guessing and not playing as aggressive because they’re in their thoughts. So, I think, get that game out of your system and be ready for [Tuesday].”

No matter whether the team can come to a consensus on its effort level, urgency was clearly a focus during Sunday’s practice, Myisha Hines-Allen said.

“We have to have a sense of urgency,” Hines-Allen said. “We all have playoff experience, in a sense, so we know what it takes to win it. … And that sense of urgency is what it takes. So we were preaching that in practice today, like whether it’s defense or offense, we have to get it. Tuesday it’s win or go home.”

The Mystics were 2-2 against the Liberty in the regular season with the two losses decided by a total of 10 points, including one in overtime. So the 15-point loss in Game 1 was a wider margin than expected.

Natasha Cloud flat-out called the defensive performance “lazy.” Sabrina Ionescu, who made a franchise postseason record seven three-pointers and scored 29 points, a career playoff high, referenced Cloud waving to the crowd after the regular season finale and told ESPN after Friday’s game that “we had to show them what that feels like.”

Cloud said she plans to match up one-on-one with Ionescu in Game 2.

“Friday night, we didn’t bring that mentality,” Cloud said. “That is completely changed coming into Tuesday’s game. We’re going to be in their [stuff]. I’m not coming off of Sabrina for 40 minutes, and that’s what it’s going to be. So they have a rude awakening for [Tuesday].

“It’s very disappointing, but humbling at the same time. When we watched film, it was very humbling, and I said that.”

If the Mystics were looking for positives, one was Hines-Allen, who had a season-high 21 points after reaching double figures just six times in 35 regular season games. Offseason knee surgery slowed her throughout the season, but she started the past four games and has been a bigger force as a playmaker to go along with her scoring and rebounding.

“To see the ball go in was definitely breathtaking because that was half the issue,” Hines-Allen said. “In all the other games, too, I was getting to the rim and just wasn’t finishing it. So just to see the ball go in and it just continue to trust my work and just play the same type of confidence and aggressiveness, too.”

Hines-Allen’s offensive resurgence is crucial to match the firepower of the Liberty, which averaged 89.2 points during the regular season, second most in the WNBA. The Liberty was held to under 75 points just once all season — the 80-64 season opener against the Mystics. New York was held under 80 just six times, and three of those were losses.

“Ninety’s too many, and 75 is too few,” Thibault said.

The biggest key on offense is Delle Donne, who was held to just 11 points on 5-for-12 shooting in Game 1 despite playing more than 35 minutes. The team is 6-8, including Game 1, in games in which Delle Donne scores fewer than 18 points.

The two-time MVP said they need to call plays and run their plays to get the best looks. Thibault called it a fine balance because he doesn’t want to slow the team down by calling a bunch of sets, but he does want organization, especially early in possessions. He wants to get Delle Donne the ball in better spaces on the court.

“When we kind of just played, you know, whatever ball, we weren’t so good,” Delle Donne said.

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