On the day when both the WNBA and NBA celebrated what would have been Kobe Bryant’s 42nd birthday, the Washington Mystics (4–8) took on the Phoenix Mercury (6–7). Both teams were missing key players, with Washington entering without Emma Meesseman for a second consecutive contest, while Phoenix were without star center Brittney Griner.
Early in the first, the Mystics committed several turnovers and suffered from a lack of communication. Despite some early stumbles, the team improved, with Ariel Atkins scoring eight of her 18 points in the first. Atkins also had four assists, one steal and shot 50-percent from three. After the opening frame, the Mystics trailed 19–17, with 11 of Phoenix’s points coming from center Kia Vaughn. Vaughn — who filled in for Griner — finished with 16 points.
As the second quarter began, Stella Johnson scored five quick points and Jacki Gemelos added her first bucket with the team by draining a long three. The Mystics went into the half up 39–38, a lead that was almost entirely due to Myisha Hines-Allen. Of the 22 points the Mystics scored in the second quarter, Hines-Allen either scored (three points) or assisted (six assists, which led to 15 points).
Let me say that again, Hines-Allen — who finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists — was a part of all but four points out of 22 in the second quarter. Add to that the fact that she now has a double-double in back-to-back games. Wow.
If the second belonged to Hines-Allen, it was Tianna Hawkins who made the third her own. After struggling to find her form early in the season, Hawkins has rediscovered her silky-smooth stroke, providing reliable scoring for the Mystics. Tonight, Hawkins had 19 points, five rebounds, two assists and was 47-percent from the field. With Hawkins contributing 11 points in the third quarter, Washington went into the break up 65–61.
A fast start for Phoenix in the fourth forced a Mike Thibault timeout. Down 73–80, the Mystics head coach gave his team some time to relax. Throughout the entirety of the fourth, the two teams traded baskets. At 5:19 remaining, Hines-Allen picked up her fifth foul, forcing her to the bench.
Despite missing Hines-Allen — the team’s top scorer — the Mystics managed to keep the game close, with Leilani Mitchell (12 points), Johnson (12 points and three steals) and Atkins keeping the affair close. When Hines-Allen re-entered the game with 2:03 remaining, the Mystics trailed 85–80 and would subsequently close the gap to two. Weathering the storm with Hines-Allen on the bench was a big reason why Washington kept the game so close.
In the end, however, the Mystics just couldn’t close the gap. Down by two with 13.3 seconds remaining, Hines-Allen carried the ball up the court, but was off-balanced and forced a poor shot. Phoenix grabbed the rebound, evaded Washington’s attempts to foul and pumped the lead to four. Despite a late Johnson three, which brought Washington within one, the four-point lead proved insurmountable.
While the failure to capitalize on chances in the waning moments of the game certainly hurt the Mystics, the main reason this game was lost was Diana Taurasi. In tonight’s affair, Taurasi — who wore number the number eight and the last name Bryant to honor her late friend — dropped 34 points, four rebounds, three assists and scored an absurd seven three pointers.
While she was scoring from all angles behind the arc, she was even better from the free throw line, going 11–13. The Mercury are undefeated this season when Taurasi scores more than 20 points, and it’s clear why.
To end on a positive note, Kiara Leslie is an absolute beast on defense. Leslie (five points, five rebounds and one steal), who missed her entire rookie season with a knee injury, had the unenviable task of guarding Taurasi for most of the night.
What Leslie does so well is, with her speed and anticipation, stays in front of the player she’s guarding, forcing either a pass or a bad shot. Taurasi scored 23 points tonight — excluding the 11 from free throw range — and of those 23 only three came when Leslie was guarding her. Granted, Leslie gave up one foul behind the arc, but otherwise held Taurasi mostly in check. Moving forward, Leslie should be the primary on-ball defender tasked with locking up the opposition’s top offensive threat.
Lastly, congratulations to Shatori Walker-Kimbrough on receiving her championship ring. Walker-Kimbrough helped the Mystics outlast the Connecticut Sun in the 2019 WNBA Finals.
The Mystics’ next game is on Wednesday August 26 at 7 p.m. ET against the Atlanta Dream and will be televised on NBC Sports Washington.