With strong defense, Mystics go in search of another WNBA title

It is playoff time in the WNBA, and the Washington Mystics are hoping there is something to the popular axiom that “defense wins championships.”

The Mystics have the WNBA’s top overall defensive rating and limit opponents to a league best 29.7 points per game in the paint. Armed with those numbers, the Mystics’ quest for their second title as they close out their 25th anniversary season begins Thursday in Seattle against the Storm with Game 1 of a best-of-three series.

“I think the feeling around the league is ‘watch out for Washington if they can score consistently,'” said Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. “We have shown with our defense not only can we compete with the best teams in the league, but we can beat them.”

The Mystics’ steel-on defense starts with Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark who according to Thibault have defense etched in as part of their identities as players. All have been on the WNBA’s all-defensive team.

Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, left, talks to his players during a timeout in the first half of a WNBA basketball game against the Las Vegas Aces, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Offseason acquisition Elizabeth Williams is a defensive stopper who has also earned WNBA defensive honors. In addition, Thibault thinks rookie Shakira Austin is one of those rare players who, in their first season in professional basketball, excels on the defensive end.

With her presence, Elena Delle Donne adds to the defensive mix and is one of the best shot blockers in the WNBA. This past season Delle Donne played in 25 of 36 regular season games after appearing in only three games since the Mystics won their title in October 2019. Delle Donne has had to deal with back issues but is working hard to return to MVP level.

“She is literally putting in some days eight hours (a) day just to be ready to play,” said Thibault. “That kind of commitment allows her to go out and average close to 20 points a game and six and seven rebounds a game. That takes a special dedication to her craft and to wanting to be one of the best players in the league.”

In the WNBA playoff format, Seattle will host the first two games of the series because they were 2-1 in regular season games against the Mystics. One of those Mystics losses was decided on the last possession and pushed the Mystics down to the fifth seed even though they had the same record as the fourth-seeded Storm.

If the Mystics can secure a win in Seattle, then they would host the decisive game three Wednesday, Aug. 24, at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights.

In 2018 the Storm swept the Mystics for their first WNBA title. The championship series loss motivated the Mystics, who responded by winning it all in 2019. The Storm lifted the trophy again in 2020.

Seattle is led by forward Breanna Stewart, who led the WNBA in scoring for the first time in her career, averaging 21.8 points. She is also the first player to repeat as The Associated Press WNBA Player of the Year.

“We are going into a series that is a very even matchup,” said Thibault. “People will be saying the winner of this series can win the whole thing”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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