The Washington Mystics snapped a team-record 12-game losing streak on Tuesday, taking home their first win of the season over the Atlanta Dream. 

Brittney Sykes returned from injury and made an immediate impact with game-high 18 points, four assists, and three rebounds. As a team, Washington shot over 50% from behind the arc.

"The feel is it's been coming," coach Eric Thibault said after the game. "I said the other night that we're turning into a good basketball team and we just haven't had the wins to show for it yet. We've been playing better basketball now for a while.

"We're obviously shooting well, but I think the quality of the shots we're getting is really good."

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Still, the team’s slow start isn't exactly in the rearview mirror. With star forward Elena Delle Donne sitting this season out, the Mystics were always predicted to face an uphill climb in what has been described as a rebuilding year. 

But with a franchise-worst 0-12 record to kick off the 2024 season, the Mystics are likely on track for a lottery pick. However, Washington can point to positive performances from star draft pick Aaliyah Edwards and league newcomer Julie Vanloo.

Elsewhere in the WNBA, the Las Vegas Aces continued their skid with a surprising 100-86 upset courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx. The reigning WNBA champions were shorthanded this week, falling to 5-5 on the season despite MVP-level play from A'ja Wilson, who scored 28 points in Tuesday's loss.

Minnesota shot over 55% as a team, with Alanna Smith leading the team with 18 points. The game marked the Aces' first three-game losing streak since 2019.

"This is a long, long, long season," Wilson said in her postgame remarks. "I'm not going to press the panic button. I'm still going to bet on us. I know exactly what's in that locker room."

Aces stalwart Chelsea Gray has been out with injury since last year's WNBA Finals run. And while she told reporters on Tuesday that she's set to return before the Olympic break, the team can’t get her back soon enough as they continue to struggle with depth. 

"I don't want them thinking too much; then you get paralysis [by] analysis," coach Becky Hammon said. "We're just not being solid in our base. Just be solid defensively. We're not a very good team right now, that's just reality. But we know we can get better. I still have a lot of belief in this ball club."

Natasha Cloud is taking exception to WNBA awards voting after being shut out for the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award and the all-defensive team selections.

A’ja Wilson won the award as the top defensive player for the second year in a row, and Alyssa Thomas, Brittney Sykes and Betnijah Laney all received votes. Sykes and Thomas were named to the all-defensive first team alongside Wilson, as were Jordin Canada and Breanna Stewart.

Laney, Napheesa Collier, Ezi Magbegor, Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams were named to the all-defensive second team.

For the Washington Mystics in 2023, Cloud averaged 1.1 steals and 0.3 blocks per game, while also pulling down 3.7 rebounds per game, including a career-high 3.5 defensive rebounds. All of those metrics ranked outside of the top 20 in the league. Her defensive rating (104) also put her outside the top 20.

“Voting for this league is a joke,” Cloud wrote on social media in a now-deleted post, before alluding to awards voting boiling down to politics in another post. She called it “one hell of a thing.”

“Cause y’all really f–ing playing with me,” she finished.

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In a now-deleted tweet, Natasha Cloud called out WNBA awards voting.

While Cloud did make the all-defensive first team in 2022, she called out WNBA awards voting in 2021, when she also was left off the all-defensive teams. In 2022, she averaged 3.1 defensive rebounds, 1.0 steals and 0.3 blocks, and in 2021, she averaged 3.2 defensive rebounds, a career-high 1.4 steals and 0.1 blocks.

Mystics head coach Eric Thibault also weighed in on the 2023 WNBA awards on social media, congratulating Sykes for her “well-deserved” selection to the all-defensive first team but questioning Cloud’s absence, which he called “hard to understand.”

“Removing positions for the All-Defense teams is mostly to blame,” he wrote. “Stats are how people largely vote on/explain these awards, and that means steals, blocks, and rebounds. Two of those three immediately skew towards bigs.

“I don’t think we’re going to see many guards on All-D teams going forward unless they are at the top in steals, like (Sykes) and Canada. … All that to say, there aren’t 10 players better at the craft of playing defense than (Cloud).”

The Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty have dominated the headlines and conversations since last year’s playoffs. On the court, the Aces and Liberty have had similar success, earning the top two seeds in the 2023 postseason.

Six other squads, though, are ready to challenge the superteams, starting with four intriguing first-round matchups. Just Women’s Sports has insights and predictions for each three-game series.

(1) Las Vegas Aces vs. (8) Chicago Sky

Defending champion Las Vegas set a WNBA regular-season record with 34 wins in 40 games. And after ending the season on a four-game winning streak, the Aces are in prime position to start the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Sky made the postseason against all odds in a season that saw the departure of their head coach and general manager, James Wade, who left for an assistant coaching position in the NBA. Chicago needed a late-season push to edge out the Los Angeles Sparks for the final playoff spot, and they got it by winning four of their last five contests.

These two teams are in completely different places, and while the Sky should be proud of their resilience in even making the playoffs, this series should be dominated by the Aces.

The teams played three times in the regular season, with the Aces taking all three matchups, 93-80, 107-95 and 94-87. In each matchup, Las Vegas had a different leading scorer, with the team’s four stars – A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum – all hitting double-digits each time. Chicago will have to find a way to limit one or two of those scorers to have a chance against the potent Las Vegas offense.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 2

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Chicago's Alanna Smith and Las Vegas' Jackie Young go after a loose ball. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(2) New York Liberty vs. (7) Washington Mystics

This series shows the importance of the fight for the No. 1 seed. Neither the Aces nor the Liberty wanted to play the Mystics.

Washington may be a No. 7 seed, but the team ranks much higher in terms of talent. Injuries throughout the season prevented the Mystics from ever getting on a roll, but when healthy, they boast Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Shakira Austin, Ariel Atkins and Brittney Sykes in the starting lineup.

Washington is certainly feeling good about itself after beating New York, 90-88, in the final game of the regular season. Yet while the Mystics can challenge the Liberty, New York is the better team and should win the series – though it may take three games to do so.

The Liberty also come into the playoffs on a high, despite the loss to Washington. They started the regular season with a ton of talent and ended it as a cohesive team that looks hard to stop in a playoff series.

Sabrina Ionescu has been particularly tough for the Mystics to stop, as she’s been New York’s leading scorer with 20-plus points in three of their four regular-season meetings. Washington needs to lean on a stellar defensive performance across the court, but particularly from Sykes and Cloud to defend New York’s guards. After that, it will be up to Austin and Delle Donne to slow down Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones. So a lot needs to go right for Washington. Ultimately, even healthy, it will be challenging for Washington to contend with New York’s talent across all five positions.

Prediction: New York in 3

(3) Connecticut Sun vs. (6) Minnesota Lynx

The Sun and the Lynx played four times this season, with Connecticut holding a 3-1 advantage, but the series featured several close games. Two of the Sun’s wins came by 10 points and 5 points.

Led by MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas and her 15.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per contest, Connecticut has been consistent all season. Slowing down Thomas is the first challenge the Lynx will have to tackle. She runs the court for the Sun, and no squad has had an answer for that. Meanwhile, DeWanna Bonner is having the best season of her career, averaging 17.4 points per game. Her length also provides a challenge for Minnesota’s defense.

Meanwhile, the Lynx are peaking at the right time. They started the season 0-6 but have turned their season around. Napheesa Collier has been a huge part of that success, averaging 21.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. She was huge in the most recent matchup, finishing with 30 points.

The Lynx have come a long way, particularly with the development of rookies Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász, and they have the ability to make this series interesting. But ultimately, the one-two punch of Thomas and Bonner is too big of a challenge to overcome, and the Sun should take this series.

Prediction: Sun in 3

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Connecticut's Alyssa Thomas goes up for a shot against Minnesota's Napheesa Collier. (David Berding/Getty Images)

(4) Dallas Wings vs. (5) Atlanta Dream

Dallas and Atlanta come into the playoffs as two similar squads — not in the way they play, but in their ability to beat anyone on a given night. Both these teams are bursting with talent, and when things go right, they go really, really right.

Yet while the Wings continue to mesh, the Dream struggled down the stretch. Still, if Atlanta puts everything together, it can compete with Dallas, though the Dream are 0-3 in the regular-season series.

To have a chance against the Wings in the playoffs, Rhyne Howard, Cheyenne Parker and Allisha Gray will all need to have big games, and Atlanta will likely need a lift from someone unexpected as well.

Dallas will lean on its big three – Satou Sabally, Arike Ogunbowale and Natasha Howard – to do most of the scoring. But the team’s inside presence is where the Wings can separate themselves. Both Teaira McCowan (6-7) and Kalani Brown (6-7) can do damage on both ends, and alongside the length of Awak Kuier (6-6), they make it difficult for opponents to attack the rim.

Prediction: Dallas in 2

Have you ever thought about having a regular conversation with a WNBA player? Say, over coffee or just hanging out at backyard barbecue?

That’s the kind of vibe I’m aiming for with And One — a new regular series for Just Women’s Sports involving 10 questions. I ask about basketball things, of course, but also about their lives off the court so you can get to know the players of the WNBA a little bit better. The first edition featured a conversation with Las Vegas Aces All-Star Jackie Young.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Brittney Sykes didn’t mind fitting in some time after practice to chat. She was as breezy on the phone as she is on the court, slicing through defenses on her way to the hoop. One of the most affable players in the WNBA, Sykes — known fondly as “Slim” by coaches, players and fans — has become one of the top defenders in the league since the Atlanta Dream drafted her seventh overall in 2017.

Sykes remains the winningest basketball player in Syracuse program history, despite suffering an ACL tear her freshman year. Since then, the 28-year-old has been named to two WNBA All-Defensive Teams and finished the 2021 season as the league’s steals leader. She currently leads the WNBA again in steals with 2.1 per game, while averaging 10.3 points, 3.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 18 games for Los Angeles.

We talked about how that injury — and a second ACL tear later on — helped her evolve as a player and as a person, where she got her nickname from, what the 10-12 Sparks need to focus on in order to make a playoff push in the second half of the season, and more in the latest And One.

1. When you saw the Sparks make offseason moves to bring Liz Cambage, Chennedy Carter and Katie Lou Samuelson to Los Angeles, what were your initial thoughts?

I get to play with a big again in Liz, and then I got a dynamic guard in Chennedy and I’ll have another shooter on the wing with Katie Lou.

2. The Sparks have a roster full of talent. What do you think has been the biggest issue for the team as far as putting it all together on the court?

I don’t really think it’s an issue. I think it’s more of a thing where people get hellbent on the physical aspect of the whole thing. You see Liz, you see Chennedy, you see Katie, you see KT [Kristi Toliver], and you think, oh, this team is supposed to be 10-0, right? And then what people don’t realize is that the only people that were returning were me, Nneka and Chiney [Ogwumike]. I was the only person that played the entire season.

So, there’s a lot of variables that go into having a team like what we have right now. I don’t think people really understand that. Or those who don’t understand basketball like that, they see the people, they see the bodies and then they think, oh, this is just supposed to come together. Well, no. You’re supposed to work the kinks out. It takes teams years sometimes, and some teams get it in months. I look at it as that. It’s gonna take some time and it’s gonna take some effort.

3. How can this team turn things around and make a playoff push?

I think these last [few] games is the direction that we want to go in, how we’ve been playing. We’ve been getting points in the paint, rebounding. Of course, we’ve been working on our free throws, making them when we get to the line. We’re starting to move up in the rankings in the specific things that we want to do in this league and be top five in every category, so I think these last few games kind of showed us that we can be the team that we’re trying to be. It’s there. We’ve just got to keep going.

4. You’ve mentioned in the past that recovering from two ACL tears in 2016 has helped make you a stronger player and person. How so?

Yeah, I mean honestly, my ACLs, I think the first one was kind of eye opening, like hey, this s—t can be taken from you at any moment, right? Because I was, like, taking it for granted. I wasn’t working out like that. I just relied on my athleticism. I got a scholarship to college, like I’m on the high horse. I’m a freshman, I’m starting, all these things. And then boom, I get hit with my first ACL tear. I’m like, OK, I need to take basketball seriously.

So, I do all the work, I do all the rehab. I’m going to rehab twice a day. I’m knocking it out. The second [ACL] comes, and now I realize I need to work on the individual. I’m not a s—tty person. I take pride in my character. But my mentality was terrible. I was just all me, me, me. Like once I get this surgery, I’m good — just nonsense, complete nonsense. Once that second one happened, I’m like, you need to sit down. You need to get more in tune. Talk to a therapist. That second one definitely saved my career because there was definitely some things I was missing. I was going through PTSD and I didn’t know, and that second one definitely opened my eyes to the things I needed to improve on.

5. You’re one of the top defensive players in the league. How have you honed and improved your defensive skills over the past few seasons?

Finding new ways to just be in the play, because teams are now starting to scheme me out of the play. Whoever I’m guarding, they just take them completely out of the play and I hate it. Like, I’m starting to realize that. So now I have to find new ways to still be effective, make teams pay even when I’m not on the ball. Because teams don’t want me on the ball. They want their point guards to breathe. Apparently, I don’t let them.

6. Where does the nickname Slim come from?

It comes from [former Dream head coach] Michael Cooper. He gave it to me in training camp ‘cause I had on all black leggings. He was like, “God dammit, Slim. You just slim. You would wear black when you that skinny.” He called me Slim Quick. And in the game, he would yell at me so much. He’s like, “I can’t call you Slim Quick. I’m just gonna call you Slim.”

7. You have your master’s in instructional design, development and evaluation in education from Syracuse. What does that involve?

It’s just a long ass name for consulting. It basically teaches you how to teach others in multiple ways. That’s the best way I can describe it.

8. If you weren’t a professional basketball player, what would you be doing?

I’d be a PBA bowler. I’m nice. I’m like that. I love bowling. It’s me and my dad’s thing.

9. What show streaming on Netflix, Hulu, etc. are you obsessed with right now?

I’m obsessed with Legendary [on HBO Max]. It’s like America’s Best Dance Crew and voguing all smashed together. It is fire.

10. What is the funniest/craziest thing that’s happened to you in the WNBA?

Some of those I cannot disclose. Oh, I missed my flight. I missed a flight (laughs). It was crazy. We were at the wrong terminal and we thought we were at the right terminal. And we were texting the group like, “Hey, did the plane board yet?” And apparently as I’m texting, the flight door closed. So, there was no chance of me getting on the flight.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

LOS ANGELES — Backup point guard and Brittney Sykes are two phrases not often heard together, but the six-year veteran thrived in the role Tuesday night, leading the Los Angeles Sparks to a 93-91 nail-biting win over the Dallas Wings. Sykes played the position for the second consecutive game in the absences of the injured Jordin Canada and Kristi Toliver, who completed her assistant coaching duties last Thursday after the Dallas Mavericks were eliminated from the NBA playoffs.

Sykes got to the basket at will against the Wings, scoring a season-high 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting, which included seven layups. The 28-year-old guard also was 9-for-11 from the charity stripe, marking her most free-throw attempts as a Spark.

“Shoutout to ‘Fish’ for our offseason pickups, because that’s honestly what’s giving me the space to go and drive,” Sykes said after the game, referencing the attention shooters Katie Lou Samuelson and Lexie Brown get on the perimeter and that Liz Cambage receives in the paint. Head coach and GM Derek Fisher acquired all three during the WNBA offseason, raising expectations for the Sparks after two straight seasons of disappointing finishes.

In the Sparks’ 85-83 win Sunday in Minnesota, Sykes attempted just two field goals but did get to the line for six free-throw attempts. Fisher said he is continually encouraging Sykes to be aggressive, even when she’s playing point guard.

“When she sees gaps, she needs to attack and try to get to the front of the basket,” Fisher said. “We’re starting to see the potential she has to impact us offensively, and that really starts to create a balanced team that we’ve always wanted to have.”

Sykes heeded Fisher’s advice, spending much of her 26:53 on the court driving to the rack. This led to six assists, tied for Sykes’ most helpers in a Sparks uniform, and a 60-36 advantage for L.A. in points in the paint.

Fisher credits’ Sykes experience playing in Australia this past winter for her effectiveness at the point. After frequently handling the ball with the University of Canberra Capitals in the WNBL, her confidence in the role has grown even further with additional reps in the past two games.

“You’ve really seen her come into her own,” Fisher said. “We, for sure, plan to continue to explore it.”

Sykes’ most critical assist of the night came with 36 seconds left to play, when the guard crossed over Allisha Gray en route to the basket and appeared poised to try her eighth layup of the game. Instead, when Isabelle Harrison committed to Sykes, the Sparks guard made a perfect left-handed pass to an open Cambage for an easy lay-in and a 90-85 lead.

Despite holding a five-point advantage with 36 ticks on the clock, the Wings cut the deficit to 93-91 and then got the ball right back with 5.5 seconds left after Sykes was called for a questionable offensive foul as L.A. tried to inbound. On the ensuing play, Arike Ogunbowale was fouled. After missing her first free-throw attempt, she was whistled for a lane violation after pump-faking what would have been her second try.

Following the victory, Sykes was interviewed on the court and hugged comedian and Sparks superfan Leslie Jones. Seeing this, a group of teenage girls ran down the sideline to the corner of the court, where the night’s leading hugger also met them with hugs.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, Fisher said that it felt like his team had played “every minute of every day” thus far this season. On Thursday, the 5-6 Sparks will enjoy a rare break before preparing for Sunday’s matchup with the Phoenix Mercury, and the star of the game has big plans for her day off.

“Sleep, eat, sleep,” Sykes said with a smile. “Maybe a little NormaTec (a compression device for recovery and rehabilitation).”

Joshua Fischman is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering Angel City FC and the Los Angeles Sparks. He has covered basketball for Vantage Sports and Hoops Rumors and served as co-host of “On the NBA Beat” podcast. Joshua received his master’s in Sports Media from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @JJTheJuggernaut.

The Los Angeles Sparks held off the New York Liberty, 86-83, on Sunday to win their fourth straight.

The game came down to the final possession, with Sparks guard Brittney Sykes blocking Sabrina Ionescu’s last-ditch effort from just inside the half-court line.

Erica Wheeler led the Sparks with 17 points, five assists, four rebounds and one steal.

Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver each added 16 points, with Ogwumike also notching six assists, five boards and three steals to help Los Angeles down the stretch. The Sparks forward, who missed over a month of the season with a knee injury, has scored in double digits in each of the Sparks’ four games since the Olympic break.

The Sparks (10-13) have inched up the WNBA standings in the last week. Now in eighth place, Los Angeles is back in the playoff race.

Next up: The Sparks will look to extend their win streak when they face the Washington Mystics on Tuesday. The Liberty will take on the Phoenix Mercury on Wednesday.