WASHINGTON – On Saturday, the Washington Mystics hosted the Connecticut Sun in a matchup of the WNBA’s top two teams. It was also the Mystics’ annual Pride Celebration, and fans received cheer cards in all colors of the rainbow that said, “All Are Welcome On This Court.”
All, apparently, except the Sun, who were run out of the gym 102-59. The Mystics raced out to a 21-9 start and steadily built the lead from there, removing all suspense about the outcome save for whether the team would top 100 points.
Six Mystics players scored in double figures, led by Elena Delle Donne’s 19 points, and the team shot 53% while holding the Sun to just 30% shooting. By the end of the third quarter, with the Mystics already up by 33 points, fans chanted, “We’re number one!” At the end of the game, the fans gave the Mystics a standing ovation for their dominant performance on both ends of the court.
What a difference a month makes.
On May 25, the Mystics’ season began with a thud: Washington lost to Connecticut by 15 points without Delle Donne, who was sidelined with a sore knee. Amid sky-high expectations from last year’s run to the WNBA Finals, the Mystics shot just 38% from the field and a ghastly 14% from 3-point range. They lost again to the Sun on June 11 in a game in which the Mystics played better, but couldn’t hold on to a 10-point lead in the third quarter.
To hear the Mystics tell it, the difference came down to one meeting. It took place after a home loss to the Seattle Storm in which the Mystics squandered another double-digit lead and before the team left on a four-game road trip. “It was just an honest meeting,” Delle Donne told High Post Hoops. “Like, ‘Look, if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how great our offense is.’”
The Mystics promptly ran off four straight road victories in which they allowed opponents to shoot only 37% from the floor and 29% from 3-point range.
The meeting “got us back to our basics,” Thibault said before Saturday’s game. “We recommitted ourselves to [the defensive] end of the floor.” The defense wasn’t perfect on the road trip—according to Thibault, the team’s energy was not high enough in the first half of games against Atlanta and Chicago—but it was a building block.
On Saturday, the Mystics were remarkably consistent defensively, allowing 15 points in each of the first three quarters and 14 in the fourth. Thibault explained, “We frustrated them with our defense today. And that’s been the goal over the last two weeks. … We were scoring before, but we weren’t stopping them. Now we are.” He added that the game showed “what we’ve been trying to find. This is the balance of great defense and good offense.”
Delle Donne added, “We all knew the importance of [defense], and we just needed to lock in, watch film, and figure things out.”
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Entering Saturday’s game, Connecticut ranked second in the WNBA—behind only Washington—with an offensive rating of 102.1. But the Mystics held Connecticut’s starting lineup to a combined 37 points, including just four points from Alyssa Thomas on 2-of-6 shooting.
Thibault repeatedly referred to the Connecticut-Washington series as a rivalry, and it is especially intriguing because of Thibault’s role in it. He coached the Sun starting in 2003, was fired after the 2012 season, and was promptly hired by the Mystics, where he’s coached ever since.
During warmups, Thibault chatted with current Sun head coach Curt Miller and hugged several of the Sun players, but the game was decidedly less friendly. The Mystics avoided the series sweep in dominating fashion, sending one team home with momentum and another with lots of questions.
The Mystics were not perfect on Saturday afternoon, but they were close enough that even Thibault had to smile. He declined to make an opening statement in the postgame press conference, saying, “I’ll let you ask questions. That’s just a really good win.”
His team entered the season with championship dreams but without a championship-level defense. One meeting seems to have changed that—and, in the process, ignited a rivalry that could come to a head deep in this year’s WNBA playoffs.
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