The Washington Mystics look to take advantage of a soft closing stretch of schedule to claim the top seed for the WNBA playoffs, starting with Sunday's contest at home versus the New York Liberty.
The Mystics (20-8) are tied with the Connecticut Sun for the top spot and also lead the Las Vegas Aces by 1 ½ games. Washington, however, has already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with Connecticut by dropping two of the three meetings between the teams.
Mike Thibault's team plays only two playoff contenders in its final six games and has two games each against both New York (9-19) and Dallas. Additionally the two games the Mystics do have against playoff teams - Los Angeles and Chicago - are at home, where they are 10-3.
Washington had a season-high six-game winning streak snapped Friday night in Chicago with an 85-78 defeat to the Sky. Elena Delle Donne had 16 points and seven rebounds, but it was not enough to prevent her first loss in nine games to her former team.
The Mystics sorely missed the outside presence of Kristi Toliver, who was sidelined for a fifth straight game with a bruised knee. They shot just 27.6 percent (8 for 29) from 3-point range and 35.6 percent overall while being held to 29 second-half points.
"I thought they moved the ball better than us and they put us in some tough positions defensively," coach Mike Thibault told High Post Hoops. "Their defense got them going offensively. They just made us struggle tonight. It was one of those games. We played like we practiced the last couple days, just not quite sharp. They worked harder than we did I thought."
Toliver is expected to miss this contest with hopes she will be available for Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Sparks. Washington has been utterly dominant at home of late, winning six straight while averaging 96.5 points and outscoring opponents by 23.0 per game.
The Liberty were denied in their bid for back-to-back wins for the first time in nearly two months after Friday night's 90-87 home defeat to Atlanta. Bria Hartley scored 17 points and Tina Charles added 15 and eight rebounds for New York, which has lost nine of its last 10 games and is entering a four-game stretch against teams residing in the league's eight playoff spots.
With the playoffs likely out of reach for a second straight year, the talk for the Liberty is beginning to center around the draft lottery. Chances are weighed based on a team's rolling two-year record, and New York is currently one game behind Indiana for the league's worst record.
"Yeah, you get another young piece, and depending on the CBA, what you can do in free agency - we have money and we have space for that. I think there are multiple ways that we're looking to improve our team," Liberty coach Katie Smith told Newsday. "We're building."
Cloud scored a career-high 26 points in the lone meeting between the teams this year, powering Washington to a 94-85 victory at New York on June 7. The Mystics have won the last four matchups between the teams.