WASHINGTON — As we wind toward October, many Washington sports fans may feel disillusioned about the “P” word. But there’s a playoff-bound team here in the District, one with a chance to break a title drought with a pair of area natives guiding the way.
That team, if you haven’t been paying attention, is the Washington Mystics, who begin their quest for a first-ever WNBA title Friday in New York. And while they received big news this week about their new future home across the Anacostia, they have a chance right now to ensure they have a banner to hang when they open that building in 2018.
If the Mystics can win this year, they’ll do so with two Alexandria, Virginia, natives in the backcourt, rising defensive star Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and one of the league’s icons, Kara Lawson.
At practice this week, three-time WNBA Coach of the Year Mike Thibault barks out commands over the squeak of 10 sets of sneakers pivoting and shifting. Voices bellow out warnings of screens and commands to switch on defense. The winningest coach in league history, Thibault is headed back to the playoffs for the 11th time in 13 years, in search of a championship that has proved elusive so far.
It’s not that the coach has never experienced championship success — he was on the bench as an assistant for a pair of the Los Angeles Lakers’ titles in the 80s. What would a WNBA title mean to him?
“Oh, shoot, well, I don’t know about personally,” he says. “It would be great for this franchise. I think it would be huge for our fans and for the ownership and obviously for the players.”
About those players — Ivory Latta is the team’s leading scorer, but the Mystics are not a squad that relies on a singular superstar. Nine players average at least 17 minutes per game, and their four leading scorers put up between 9.6 and 13.4 points per game.
They’ve been a team that prides itself on defense, with Ruffin-Pratt leading the charge. While she’s pitched in a dozen double-digit scoring performances this year, she often draws the assignment to try to shut down the opposition’s top scorer.
“Since high school, AAU days, I’ve always been that defensive player,” says Ruffin-Pratt. “Put me on the best player and I’m going to be the one to stop them.”
She’ll have her work cut out for her, especially if the Mystics advance and meet league MVP Elena Delle Donne and the Chicago Sky in the Eastern Conference Finals. But even coming in as the lowest seed in the East, the Mystics have reason to like their chances.
They’ve beaten their first round opponent, the New York Liberty, three of the four times the teams have matched up this year (including both matchups at Madison Square Garden), with the lone loss coming in overtime. The Mystics have also won at Indiana and pushed the Chicago Sky to the limit in their last visit, giving the team confidence that it can win on the road against the other playoff teams in the East. That’s crucial, as Washington is the 4 seed and will cede home court advantage in any series they play this postseason.
“We’ve been a good road team, for the most part,” says Thibault. “Our players feel like, ‘ok, we have the right to be confident no matter what seed we are. We’ve beaten everybody in the East that matters.’ So we’ll go try to do it.”
Ten years Ruffin-Pratt’s senior, Lawson is the veteran leader and the team’s top distributor (3.6 assists per game). Now in her 13th WNBA season, many know her more for her offseason job, where she calls college basketball games on ESPN. But she continues to live both her professional lives simultaneously in a way unprecedented for an athlete.
“There wasn’t really a blueprint for me,” she admits of her dual professions. “I’ve just had to figure it out. It’s all I’ve ever known — it’s my 13th year in the pros, and I’ll start my 13th year at ESPN in the fall, so I’ve done it every single year.”
But this year is her first in a Washington jersey, back in her hometown, surrounded by family and friends. At 33, the new facility in Ward 8 may not come in time for her playing days, but she’s relished the chance to play in D.C. this season, where she first realized the dream of professional basketball, attending games at the Verizon Center when she in high school.
“I was here when the Mystics started back in ’98,” she recalls. “I didn’t know that I would eventually play for this team, but I just kind of dreamed of being on the court with the best players in the world.”
Lawson has one WNBA title to her name, but it came 10 years ago, on the opposite coast, playing for the Sacramento Monarchs. Now she has another chance at a championship run back at home.
“It’s kind of cool for my family, for my friends, my high school coaches, my youth league coaches,” says Lawson. “Everybody in this area that helped support me growing up, now they’re able to come watch me play every week.”