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June 18, 2023; New York, NY, USA; The New York Liberty host the Phoenix's Mercury. Photo Credit: Sophia Scheller - The Local W

Liberty vs. Mystics Playoff Preview: Matchups, Advantages and More in Round 1

After a 40-game regular season, the longest in WNBA history, the playoffs have begun. The first-round matchups are set and for the New York Liberty, it begins a hopeful path to their first championship in franchise history.

New York will first have to face a familiar foe in a best-of-three series—the Washington Mystics. The Liberty (32-8) come into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed with the Mystics (19-21) the No. 7 seed. 

The first two games of the series will be played at Barclays Center, giving the Liberty home-court advantage. If a third game is needed, it will be played at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, D.C. 

Seeds and rankings do not tell the full story going into this matchup. Washington was one of two teams who beat the Liberty twice during the regular season, joining the Las Vegas Aces, as the Mystics opened and closed the regular season with wins against New York.

We Meet Again

The Liberty and Mystics last met on Sept. 10 in a back-and-forth contest that saw both teams tied at 50 at halftime. In the third quarter, Washington opened up a 12-point lead before New York went on a 10-2 run to get within four to start the fourth quarter. Washington again built a double-digit lead before New York went on another run to tie the game with 21.5 seconds left. After Breanna Stewart blocked a shot from the Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne, Washington had one more chance with 0.5 seconds remaining and capitalized on an acrobatic shot at the buzzer by Brittney Sykes on a lob from Natasha Cloud, giving Washington a 90-88 win. 

“This is a really good team that has had a lot of injuries and a lot of players had to carry them but now they are getting some health back, ” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said after the game. “The guards are really aggressive and they are just competitors.” 

Even with a sub-.500 record, Washington has proven to be a dangerous team given their experience, and the final game of the regular season can give them some momentum going into the playoffs. 

Winning Experience

The Mystics have been plagued with injuries all season. Delle Donne missed 17 games due to a left ankle injury and guard Ariel Atkins missed 13 games due to a left ankle sprain. The team’s center, Shakira Austin, missed 21 games with a hip injury and coach Eric Thibault announced that she would miss at least the first two games of this series. Veteran guard Kristi Toliver also went down on Sept. 5 with a torn ACL and is out for the season. 

Even with their injuries, the Mystics have playoff experience and know what it takes to win. The team won their first WNBA championship in 2019 with Delle Donne, Cloud and Atkins all a part of that team. 

While the Liberty have yet to win a championship as a franchise, many of their new additions to the team know how to win. Their three big additions this offseason of Stewart from the Seattle Storm, Jonquel Jones from the Connecticut Sun and Courtney Vandersloot from the Chicago Sky all have extensive playoff experience. Both Stewart and Vandersloot are WNBA champions and Jones has reached the Finals twice. The team has also experienced what it is like to be victorious this season after taking home the Commissioner’s Cup trophy, beating the Aces. 

Keys to the Game

Rebounding and Paint play

The Liberty will have the advantage in the frontcourt with Stewart and Jones, especially with Austin out. The Liberty are averaging 37.9 rebounds per game, including 8.7 offensive rebounds, compared to 32.3 and 6.6 respectively for the Mystics. Jones, who has come alive since the All-Star break and regained a lot of her confidence, will be a factor in this series and has the ability to provide a spark, especially with her rebounding and put-back skills. The Liberty are 13-1 when Jones has double-digit shot attempts. 

Stewart, who was recently named the Associated Press Player of the Year, has put up record numbers this year, including four 40-point games. She has also averaged 9.3 rebounds per game and is a defensive force in the paint with 1.6 blocks. New York has the height advantage, and it will be interesting to see how Washington plans to guard the post.

Limiting Turnovers

If the Liberty want to control each game throughout the playoffs, they are going to need to take care of the ball. Turnovers and ball security have been one of the weaker points for the team throughout the season, currently averaging 13.5 turnovers per game, compared to 12.2 for the Mystics. 

The Mystics are one of the most efficient teams on defense in the league, finishing fifth with 80 points allowed per game in the regular season. Brittney Sykes has cemented herself as one of the WNBA’s top defenders, averaging 2.1 steals per game, which means New York will need to take care of the ball and win the turnover game. On the other side, Betnijah Laney is one of New York’s top defenders and will most likely be tasked with guarding a player like Sykes, who has led the Mystics in scoring of late. 

Spreading the Ball Around

It is evident that the Liberty are at their best when they are playing together. They average 24.2 assists, the most in the league, with Vandersloot leading the way with 8.1 per game. In the Liberty’s two losses to the Mystics, they had a season-low in assists and their worst assist-to-turnover ratios. Even if the Liberty are not shooting the ball well, they can always rely on finding the open player and will need to do so against Washington. 

Guard and Bench Play 

In the backcourt, both teams have some dynamic guards, including Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu for the Liberty and Sykes and Cloud for the Mystics. It will be interesting to see perimeter defense played against these guards as they all have the ability to drive into the paint.

Both teams also have bench players who can make a difference, so a big factor will be which team can have greater contributions from their non-starters. Watch out for players like Marine Johannès and Kayla Thornton for the Liberty and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Tianna Hawkins for the Mystics to have an impact. 

The Three Ball

New York has relied on the three ball more than any other team in WNBA history, averaging 29.7 attempts compared to 23.1 for Washington. Ionescu will be a big factor in this series and recently broke the WNBA record for three-pointers made in a season with 128. 

The Liberty lead the league in three-point percentage (37.4), and if they can continue to shoot at a high level, it will be a problem for the Mystics’ perimeter defense. Relying so much on the three will be interesting, though, if either team has a particularly off-shooting night. 

Home Court Advantage

The Liberty will undoubtedly have the home court and fan advantage in the first two games of the series and will look to take advantage of the Mystics’ 7-13 road record this season. It has already been announced that lower bowl tickets at Barclays Center have sold out for Game 1, meaning that more attendance records could potentially be broken during the playoffs in Brooklyn. Liberty fans, hoping to see their team win their first title, will show up and be loud and create a playoff atmosphere for these two teams. 

It will be an exciting first-round series for the Liberty and a definite test to begin the playoffs. 

Series Schedule:

  • Game One: Barclays Center – 7:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 15 (ESPN2)
  • Game Two: Barclays Center – 7:00 p.m. ET on Sept. 19 (ESPN)
  • Game Three (if necessary): Entertainment & Sports Arena – TBD on Sept. 22 (ESPN2)