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Mystics beat Aces, move into fourth in WNBA

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The WNBA playoffs won’t begin for two more weeks, but it doesn’t feel that way in Washington. The Mystics played a back-to-back against the Seattle Storm over the weekend, hosted the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday and visit the Chicago Sky on Friday.

Those are matchups with three of the top four teams in the league, all of them still jockeying for playoff position.

The fact that every game has our attention, it’s good,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “For all of us at the top right now, it’s a way to find out a little bit more about yourself. You’re playing for something. There’s an edge to these games, and they’re teams you know you could face if you want to advance.”

The Mystics used that edge to their advantage Tuesday night, bouncing back from a subpar first quarter to beat the Aces, 83-73, and move into the No. 4 playoff slot with four games left. Maintaining that position would give the Mystics (20-12), winners of five of their past six and now a half-game ahead of Seattle (19-12), home-court advantage in the first round.

The second-place Aces (22-9) recently beat the Sky to win the Commissioner’s Cup and came into Tuesday on a four-game winning streak with the top spot in the league in their sights. Coach Becky Hammon chuckled when asked how important that No. 1 seed is.

We’ve actually been better on the road,” she said before the game. “So I don’t even know if I want it. It’s just about playing well at the right time. Playing well down the stretch, being solid — that’s my bigger concern.”

Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics bounce back, take rematch from Storm

The playoff picture is tight all the way around. Washington is 1½ games behind the third-place Connecticut Sun (21-10), and the Storm holds the tiebreaker over the Mystics if they finish with the same record.

I think it helps to play games like that,” Thibault said. “We’re still playing for something. Every time you beat a good team that you know can compete for a championship, that helps your confidence. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve strung together some pretty good wins.”

Here’s what to know about the Mystics’ win:

Thibault called Tuesday’s second half one of the best defensive halves of the season for his team. The Aces managed just 32 points as Washington used an 11-0 run in the fourth quarter to take a 79-68 lead and put the game away.

The win was even more impressive considering Elena Delle Donne managed just five points while receiving heavy defensive attention; she did put up 11 rebounds and five assists. Thibault said she was dealing with tired legs but promised she would be good in the fourth quarter.

I don’t know a lot of other franchise and star players that would take that role as a decoy on the offensive end and give herself up to get her teammates open shots,” said guard Natasha Cloud, who had 16 points and nine assists. “So when you have your franchise player being selfless like that, it trickles down. How can we be selfish in any sense if that’s our franchise player?”

Ariel Atkins was brilliant defensively while scoring 13 points as the Mystics completed a season sweep of the Aces.

“We’re starting to jell and we’re starting to click and we’re starting to get really [expletive] scary and we’re peaking at the right time,” Cloud said. “We knew that this was going to happen. We knew if we just … stuck to our plan and the process that this is where we’re going to be. So we’re just trying to finish out the season strong and prepare ourselves for playoffs.”

If defense wins championships, the Mystics are in great shape

Rookie Shakira Austin had 15 points and eight rebounds while battling 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson (a game-high 22 points). Austin had multiple and-ones while playing aggressively on both ends.

No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard of the Atlanta Dream was named rookie of the month for July on Monday, but No. 3 selection Austin is firmly in the conversation for rookie of the year honors.

“I should be rookie of the year,” she declared with a smile. “And we’re going to win a chip!”

The Mystics have kept their eye on the Los Angeles Sparks all season: The more they struggle, the better it is for Washington. The Sparks’ 2023 first-round draft pick is owned by the Dream, which offered that pick in the trade with the Mystics that brought them the No. 1 pick this year. The Mystics have the option to swap their first-round pick in 2023 for the Sparks’ selection.

Los Angeles (12-18) lost to the New York Liberty (12-18) on Tuesday and has dropped four in a row. The Sparks are tied with the Dream and the Liberty for the last playoff spot. If Los Angeles misses the postseason, that draft selection becomes a lottery pick—and the Mystics have a shot at securing the No. 1 choice for the second straight year.

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