Three career performances give the Mystics something to build on

Myisha Hines-Allen, Alaina Coates, and Kiara Leslie helped Washington nearly pull off an epic comeback

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Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen celebrates during a game against the Dallas Wings on August 21, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE viaGetty Images

It would have been understandable if Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault had opened his postgame press conference on Friday by quoting Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Put simply, Friday’s 101-92 overtime loss to the Dallas Wings was a roller coaster of a game. The Mystics came out flat without forward Emma Meesseman, who sat out because of a sprained shoulder, and dug themselves a 23-point hole in the first 23 minutes of play. They mounted a furious comeback, even taking a 1-point lead with 1:53 to play in regulation, only to let it slip away in overtime.

“It's a shame that for the great effort that … got us back in the game, that we couldn't finish it off,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said postgame. “We had a couple chances … There were certainly very many bright spots, but it's just too bad we had to dig ourselves a hole.”

Those bright spots included three different players, including two reserves, setting career highs in scoring with a combined 56 points. Here’s what each of them did on Friday and what it means for the Mystics going forward.

Myisha Hines-Allen

35 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block

How she did it: Hines-Allen had an amazing third quarter, scoring 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. In the last seven minutes of that quarter, she helped the Mystics cut their deficit from 23 points to 11, which set up a fourth-quarter push that would tie the game. She also had 12 points in the first half to keep the Mystics in striking distance and six in the fourth quarter to help them draw level.

About the only thing Hines-Allen struggled to do was explain her success in the third quarter. “I went in like, I don’t know, attack mode,” she said postgame. “I was just finishing, shooting … I don’t know. I was just hot, to be honest with you.”

@bpf_mooks_22 showed out with a career-high 3️⃣5️⃣ points 😧 #WatchMeWork
August 22, 2020

Wings head coach Brian Agler credited Hines-Allen for playing “a tremendous game.” The 6’1 forward scored inside and out, making three of her four 3-point attempts and using her strength and quickness to get to the rim. She joked postgame that a few of her offensive rebounds “shouldn’t count” because they were off of her own misses, but her energy on the glass and elsewhere inspired her teammates.

“I was feeding hard off of My[isha],” center Alaina Coates said. “My was getting super hyped. She was getting me hyped, I was getting [Tianna Hawkins] hyped—it's a ripple effect. So it just takes that one little spark … and then it just spreads across everybody.”

What to expect going forward: Hines-Allen is the team’s leading scorer (16.7 points per game) and rebounder (8.0) in her third WNBA season, and she will continue to be a top offensive option for the Mystics this season, particularly if Meesseman misses significant time. She is the rare player who is efficient while having the ball in her hands a lot, as her effective field goal percentage of 57.1% and her usage rate of 24.4% both rank first on the Mystics and in the top 25 leaguewide.* Hines-Allen should also be a favorite to win the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award after averaging just 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game last season.

However, whether Hines-Allen averages around 15 points or closer to 25 in her next several games may depend on a few specific pregame rituals. On Wednesday, she scored 23 points against Atlanta and credited a stylist named Candi for her performance. “I'm joking but I'm not: when you get your hair done, and you're looking good, you feel good,” she said. On Friday, the secret sauce was a Theragun massage from Meesseman:

*Among players who have played at least 5 games and averaged at least 10 minutes per game.

Alaina Coates

11 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists

How she did it: Offensive rebounding and free throws. Four of Coates’ seven rebounds came on the offensive end, and all four resulted in putbacks or free throws for the 6’4 center. And while Coates had made just 61% of her free throws in her career entering Friday’s game, she made five of seven attempts (71%) against Dallas, which tied her career high for free throws made in a single game.

“AC did a great job today with rebounding,” Hines-Allen said. “That's how we got back into the game: getting stops on the defensive end, but also she was giving us extra possessions, getting the ball up, shooting, getting to the free throw line. So shoutout to AC today.”

Coates has bounced around the league since she debuted in 2018, but she said after Friday’s game, “I’m really starting to feel like myself.” She added, “Knowing that I was coming in there, making an impact, it made me feel good, whether it was rebounding or getting putbacks or even [blocking] somebody on a screen. … Everything was feeling good to me. My energy was high … I haven't felt that good in a while.”

What to expect going forward: To some extent, it may depend on how long Meesseman is out of the lineup, as Thibault said pregame that he expects Coates to fill some of Meesseman’s minutes. However, Thibault lauded Coates for “the approach she gave at both ends of the floor: on the offensive boards on one end, defensive boards on the other and talking on defense.” If she keeps that up, she should see more minutes even when Meesseman returns.

One area that Coates will have to clean up, though, is her turnovers. She had seven in the game, including one with the score tied and 18.6 seconds left in regulation and three more in the overtime period. After fighting to get her team extra possessions on the offensive glass, she undid some of that hard work by giving the ball right back.

Kiara Leslie

10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal
Washington Mystics guard Kiara Leslie (right) surveys her options in a recent practice. Photo credit: NBA Content Network

How she did it: Her second-half defense on the WNBA’s leading scorer, Dallas guard Arike Ogunbowale, was what kept her on the court. At halftime, Ogunbowale had scored 18 points and Leslie had played just six minutes, but the script flipped after that. Leslie, a 6’ rookie guard, played 13 minutes and 22 seconds in the second half, and Ogunbowale had just four points on 1-of-7 shooting.

“Our defense on Ogunbowale in the second half was sensational,” Thibault said postgame. “… Kiara Leslie did a really good job.”

On offense, Leslie hit three of her six shots, including the 3-pointer that gave the Mystics an 86-85 lead with 1:53 left in regulation. This was her first game since August 11 because of two sprained ankles, and she produced one of her most impactful games this season off the bench.

What to expect going forward: Despite Leslie hitting two of her three 3-point attempts, don’t expect her to become the next Ariel Atkins—a standout on both ends of the court who is shooting 47% from 3-point range—quite yet. “She's got a long ways to go offensively, but she's making progress,” Thibault said. Because of injuries, “she hasn't played enough to have any rhythm to her offense. … So we'll see … I played her because of her defense.”

Even if Leslie’s offense remains a work in progress, she will likely continue to get minutes because of her defense. Thibault benched several players in the second half for a lack of defensive intensity, and the defensive end has been a major focus in the past several practices. Anything Leslie can do to lighten the load on Atkins, a two-time WNBA All-Defense selection and one of the Mystics’ top offensive options, would be a big help.

Next up for the Mystics is a game against the Phoenix Mercury on August 23 at 8pm ET. The Mystics will need Hines-Allen to keep up her aggressive play and Leslie and Coates to build off of their breakthrough performances. Both reserves will likely play a role in defending Phoenix’s “Big Three,” with Leslie helping to contain guards Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi and Coates providing the most size to match up with 6’9 Brittney Griner.

More broadly, Thibault has spoken candidly about how he will use this season to evaluate which young players should be part of the Mystics’ long-term plans. Hines-Allen has emphatically made her case this season, but Friday’s game showed how Leslie and Coates could figure in, too. “On one game, you don't base all your lineups and rotations,” Thibault said on Friday. However, all three players’ career nights likely opened the door a little wider for their long-term success with Washington.