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This was always the way for the Washington Mystics, one way or another. The WNBA season began with two clear favorites, the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty, after both organizations added former MVPs and depth during the offseason. They were quickly labeled “super teams” and most of the national conversation focused on two of the sport’s biggest markets as they finished with the two best records in the league.

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Meanwhile, the Mystics regained the core of their team that lost to the Seattle Storm in the first round of the WNBA playoffs last season, added some key pieces and maintained their championship aspirations. A tumultuous year that included starters missing 53 games with injuries and illnesses saw Washington (19-21) plummet to seventh place and a best-of-three first-round matchup with No. 2 Liberty (32-8 ) that starts. Friday night in New York.

“That’s where we wanted to be at the beginning of the year,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. “And maybe we’ll get them a little earlier than expected.”

Alyssa Thomas is having the biggest year of her life. The WNBA playoffs are next.

Getting through New York will not be an easy task for any team, although it is not a terrible matchup for the Mystics. The teams split their four regular-season meetings, including the Mystics’ 16-point victory in their season opener in May and a buzzer-beating victory in their regular-season finale on Sunday. Washington’s record against New York is better than its record against any of the other teams with home-field advantage in the first round: the Aces (1-2), Connecticut Sun (0-4) and Dallas Wings (1-3) .

Liberty has a pair of former MVPs at the position in Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, but their game starts on the perimeter. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot is a five-time All-Star and led the league with 8.1 assists per game. Guard Sabrina Ionescu averaged 17 points and broke Diana Taurasi’s WNBA single-season record with 128 three-pointers on 44.8 percent shooting from behind the arc. Thibault cited the need to not let the Liberty get out and run successfully in transition as key to the series.

The Mystics are better suited to perimeter-oriented teams than larger teams, particularly with center Shakira Austin still out with a hip injury. Brittney Sykes, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins have been named to various defensive teams and have constantly harassed opposing guards. Liberty and Aces are the two highest-volume three-point shooting teams in the league.

“Washington is a very scary team,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said, “and particularly because they are a team that has the ability to really focus on the defensive end on the perimeter and wreak havoc and cause problems. And so when it comes to looking at the two best teams in the league, Las Vegas or New York, those are teams (whose) offenses rely heavily on their guard play. If you can make them work harder on every possession and take away the three at a high percentage like they did (in the regular season finale), you give yourself a chance.”

Still, the most anticipated singles matchup remains Stewart against Elena Delle Donne. The former MVP forwards have been dueling for years. Stewart was named WNBA Player of the Year by the Associated Press this week after finishing second in the league in scoring (23 points per game), third in rebounds (9.3 per game) and fourth in blocks (1.6 per game ). Delle Donne averaged 16.7 points and has been picking up more pace after missing 17 games due to injuries.

“If you’re a great player, you like to play against the best,” Delle Donne said. “It’s always great to play against Stewie. Of course, it’s always a big challenge. You can score at will. She’s very defensive and has really cool people around her, so you can’t draw too much attention to her or she’ll make you pay, infecting her other teammates. So it’s always a fun challenge.”

Both teams are in an interesting position since they faced each other a few days ago. Thibault said it’s a plus for the coaches that they’ve already put together the scouting report and both teams have become a little more familiar with each other. He called Sunday’s win a prequel to the playoffs, and while there will be adjustments on both sides, personnel and priorities aren’t likely to change much.

The Liberty hosts the first two games on Friday and Tuesday and, if necessary, the third game will be held in Washington on September 22. The ultimate goal remains within reach for a Mystics team that has endured a difficult and inconsistent season. The first step is to eliminate one of the “super teams” that the league has been talking about since February.

“New York is one of the ideal matchups,” Sykes said. “It’s like a little love story right now. That was our first game of the season. Everyone’s been talking about them versus us, versus Las Vegas. … We’re probably one of the few teams that (was successful) playing against Vegas and New York.”

Cloud chimed in: “(The media) may not be talking about us, but they’re going to talk about us.”


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