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Brittney Sykes And The Mystics Can Hang

4:59 PM EDT on September 11, 2023

Brittney Sykes #15 of the Washington Mystics plays against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on September 10, 2023 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

"They can't keep getting away with it," I screech and sob, every time the Liberty shoot themselves right back into games they didn't seem to realize were occurring until halfway through the third quarter. And yet, the Liberty have mostly gotten away with it. They are that one obnoxious guy from math class who never studies but still gets an A. I hate that guy. They looked like they might get away with it again on Sunday afternoon in their regular-season finale against the Mystics, when they woke up with five minutes left in the fourth quarter and went on a 14-4 run to tie the game with just half a second for the Mystics to run a last play. Not today, Brittney Sykes said. Not today. You unstudious scamps will get the C you deserve. With this pretty much perfect buzzer-beater, Sykes sealed the 90-88 win and ensured a Liberty-Mystics rematch when the first round of the WNBA playoffs begins later this week.

The actual physics of the play are worth admiring. Five-foot-nine and springy, Sykes is the WNBA's best athlete, and her hops make her both extremely fun to watch and extremely useful, especially for a player who can't shoot. (See her block of 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner or the opening tip she won against 6-foot-6 Dorka Juhasz.) She made this look so easy that you'd forget the player guarding her is an MVP frontrunner with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. And then there are the smaller details to love: Natasha Cloud waving goodbye to the crowd after her lob worked; the usher or security guy who steps right into the frame to shake his head at the 12-second mark; Sandy Brondello gasping on the Liberty sideline.

A New York-Vegas Finals clash has been hyped for so long now that writing about other teams' playoff paths feels like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-style bit. As scary a first-round matchup as the Mystics have seemed at points—they're 4-2 against the Aces over the last two years, they split the season series with the Liberty this year—they probably don't have the juice on offense for a three-game series.

They certainly don't have luck on their side. Whatever D.C.-area post-championship curse is going around has got the Mystics good, and is responsible for their seventh-seed standing. Lucas Seehafer, a researcher who tracks WNBA injuries, found that the Mystics suffered more than any other team by win shares lost this season. Elena Delle Donne played just over half her team's games. A recurring hip issue has kept sophomore center Shakira Austin out for portions of the season, and head coach Eric Thibault isn't sure she'll return for the playoffs. Last week, 36-year-old DMV legend Kristi Toliver tore her ACL, an injury that ended her season and will probably end her WNBA career. Ariel Atkins has been through it, from head to toe: She's missed time with a nasal fracture and ankle sprain.

What I am saying is the Mystics are so banged up, it's kind of hard not to root for them and actually it's cruel if you don't root for them. All their bones and ligaments are pure slush but dammit, they'll play their hearts out! Literally! Tianna Hawkins will suffer an aorta contusion for the sake of her team! Sykes, the only player to start all 40 games for the Mystics this season, was an appropriate hero on Sunday afternoon. In her first season in Washington, she's kept her team's spirits high, and rounded out her offensive game to help them through the stretches they played without their best scorers healthy. "We've been through a hell of a regular season,” she told reporters postgame. “I don’t think any of us thought that this was going to happen. We didn’t know what it was going to look like. I’m just really proud of our resilience as a team." This is all I want from a first-round matchup, to see that no sloppiness or sleepiness goes unpunished. A playoff upset may be a tall order, but nothing's so tall that Brittney Sykes can't reach it.

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