|Mystics eye strong closing weekend starting with Sparks|
Washington and Los Angeles know their seasons will extend after Sunday, the end of the regular season. Who and where they will play in the postseason is an entirely unknown story.
The Sparks and Mystics square off Friday at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., with more at stake for Washington than Los Angeles.
The Mystics (21-11) have won seven straight and are one game behind the second-place Atlanta Dream (22-10) with two games to go.
The Dream have two games left as well, beginning on Friday against league-leading Seattle at home. On Sunday, Atlanta travels to Las Vegas to take on the Aces, who are fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The top two seeds receive double-byes in the playoffs, so there's plenty of pressure on the Mystics, and there'll be a lot of scoreboard watching.
"We control how we play," Mystics coach-general manager Mike Thibault told The Washington Post on Thursday. "We can't control them, but we can control what we do, and whether we get it or not, let's finish the right way."
Finishing the right way would mean beating the past two WNBA champions as the Mystics close out the season against the Lynx on Sunday in Minnesota.
"There is still a lot on the line for us with seeding," Mystics standout Elena Delle Donne said. "So we gotta play our best basketball each and every night and get ourselves ready."
Los Angeles travels to Washington with a 19-13 record after snapping a two-game skid on Tuesday with a win over New York. Chelsea Gray posted a career-high 26 points and added five assists.
Once again, the Sparks' defense rose to the occasion, sending the Liberty to their 10th straight loss. The Sparks, down 44-35 in the third quarter, turned the tables on the Liberty behind Gray's hot hand and outscored New York 39-22 the rest of the way for a 74-66 win.
"Thought we played great defense in the second half," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "It was a grind-out game and I was happy (because) that's like a playoff game. You just have to grind out every single possession. It was good for us to have to go from a deficit to a lead, dig it out, and get to that moment."
Los Angeles allows a league-low 76.9 points per game and reigning defensive player of the year Alana Beard remains the ringleader on defense.
"It's what I've been doing that's kept me in this league," Beard said. "It's what I enjoy to do, it's what my teammates and my team needs me to do, I understand my role completely. If I'm not on point defensively, it's not a good thing for the team, so it's what I focus on."
While the Sparks are known for their defense, it was the Mystics who put on a historic dis Indiana on Wednesday night, when in the fourth quarter the Fever scored two points.
That's not a typo -- two points for an entire quarter.
It's the second-fewest points scored in a fourth quarter in league history. Indiana made just 1 of 16 shots in the quarter.
"There was a lot on the line for us," Washington guard Kristi Toliver said. "The third quarter was pretty terrible for us. But in the fourth quarter we really buckled down on the defensive end, got our stops, got rebounds, and we were able to play our game."
The Sparks and Mystics have met twice this season, with the road team winning both times.
In the Sparks' win on June 15, Candace Parker compiled 23 points, seven rebounds and a career-high 11 assists.
Delle Donne scored 18 points to go along with seven rebounds and four steals.
In the Mystics' win on July 7 in L.A., Toliver scored 20 points and Washington clamped down on Parker, holding her to six points.
The two teams could be on a postseason collision course, and they match up evenly.
But, for now, players on both sides are focused on closing out strong. Los Angeles is trying to build momentum; Washington is seeking the second seed and the double bye.
"Win. We gotta play hard and win," Parker said. "I mean it's like at this point everybody's tired, everybody's fighting, everybody's exhausted, everybody's tired of traveling, season's winding down, people are getting ready for vacation. For us, we have to be ready."
Mystics forward Monique Currie and her Washington teammates understand the task that's ahead and remain laser-focused.
"We may end up seeing Minnesota or L.A. in the playoffs, so these games are very important for confidence, just to see where we stand," Currie told the Post. "But we're playing pretty good basketball right now; we've won seven in a row."