Three things we learned from the Washington Mystics’ ‘Run It Back’ documentary

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: The Washington Mystics celebrate after winning the 2019 WNBA Championship against the Connecticut Sun at St Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena on October 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: The Washington Mystics celebrate after winning the 2019 WNBA Championship against the Connecticut Sun at St Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena on October 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

The documentary goes behind the scenes of a storybook season

It’s unclear when the Washington Mystics will be able to celebrate their 2019 championship with a parade. The team has now postponed it twice—once immediately after the Finals because several players had to start their overseas seasons so quickly, and once this spring due to the coronavirus.

In the meantime, the team is making sure that fans’ memories of that historic season stay fresh by releasing a documentary called “Run It Back,” referencing the team’s season-long mantra to get back to the WNBA Finals.

The first episode of the documentary aired on May 16 as part of the Mystics’ “virtual home opener,” and the full film is now available to stream on Facebook and Monumental Sports Network. Here are three things we learned from the documentary:

Delle Donne is the lifeblood of the Mystics

Okay, we mostly already knew that—but the documentary let us see Elena Delle Donne’s leadership in action. The 2019 WNBA MVP was seemingly always the person talking in huddles, and her teammates’ eyes were glued to her. Guard Kristi Toliver was the lone player who had won a championship before 2019, and guard Natasha Cloud is one of the team’s loudest, most magnetic personalities. But Delle Donne, fueled in part by the team’s loss in the 2018 WNBA Finals, was a crucial leader for the 2019 team, not just by example but also with her voice. “Anyone who has seen my basketball journey knows that this [championship] is the only thing that I really wanted,” Delle Donne said.

On the court, Delle Donne credited Toliver with being a player whose presence instantly calmed the team. But the same dynamic played out in the Finals against Connecticut when Delle Donne left Game 2 with a back injury.

“We all just kind of looked at each other like, ‘Oh, ****,’” wing Aerial Powers said. “That kills you,” Cloud added.

The Mystics never recovered, losing Game 2 at home by 12 points. Heading into that game, they had had a 17-3 record at home in 2019, including 3-0 in the playoffs.

Delle Donne returned, though clearly not at full strength, for Game 3, which the Mystics won on the road. “The boost she gave us and how she played energized us, and we played terrific,” head coach Mike Thibault said. “I knew if I could just be on the court and be a leader, do a couple things, that my teammates were ready to do the rest,” Delle Donne said.

The players wanted to beat Connecticut for Thibault

In June 2019, the Mystics thrashed Connecticut by 43 points, avenging two early-season losses. “This is us at our very best,” Thibault said in the documentary. “… And doing it against Connecticut probably had a little more special feel to it, because that’s become a big rivalry.”

After that game, I wrote about Thibault’s complicated role in that rivalry: he was fired as Connecticut’s head coach in 2012 despite eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons, paving the way for his hire in Washington. Yet, pregame, he chatted amicably with current Sun head coach Curt Miller and hugged several Sun players.

“Coach T is never gonna be like, ‘Oh, we need to beat Connecticut because they screwed me over,’” Cloud explained in the documentary. “But [if] you followed his career … that Connecticut situation leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially for the caliber [of] coach that he is and what he did there.”

Referencing the WNBA Finals matchup, Delle Donne said, “It’s Coach’s old team, and he’s never won a championship before. I mean, what sweet revenge to get your championship against the team that let you go.” Combine that sense of purpose with the team’s added confidence compared to 2018, when most of the players were making their Finals debuts, and the Mystics were locked in.

The players were aware of what was being written about them, but the pressure didn’t bother them

The Mystics had decided in the preseason that their goal was “championship or bust,” according to Delle Donne. Then they had a historic regular season, breaking several WNBA records and seeing Delle Donne reach a shooting milestone that had never been achieved before in the WNBA. “There were articles [calling us] the greatest team to ever play, and we were all aware of that,” Delle Donne said in the documentary. “But I think what we all knew was, yeah, we can have the greatest regular season ever. But if we are a flop in playoffs, it doesn’t matter.”

That sounds like a lot of pressure for the top-seeded team, and Delle Donne admitted that “there’s days where you feel the stress and anxiety of it all.” But the Mystics repeatedly referenced the famous saying by tennis legend Billie Jean King, “Pressure is a privilege.” Guard Ariel Atkins explained, “To me, that meant we earned a target, which meant we earned respect.” Cloud took it a step further: “This isn’t a fluke. We are this good. We’re meant to win. It’s extremely hard to get back to a final series, but if any team’s gonna do it, it’s going to be this one.”

That confidence helped the Mystics take adversity in stride – whether it was injuries to Delle Donne and Atkins in the Finals or trash talk from Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage in the semifinals. It was also likely part of the reason Cloud boldly guaranteed that the Mystics would win Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, a move that, like Cambage’s braggadocio in the semis, fired up her opponent.

“I definitely put a little added pressure on us,” Cloud said with a smile. “… [But] I truly believed in my heart of hearts, like, we were meant to lose Game 4 so that we could win Game 5 at home, in front of our fans, our family.”

The Mystics did just that, and Thibault credited those fans for lifting up his team when the Mystics were trailing in the second half. He then circled back to the theme of embracing pressure in the postgame locker room as the team prepared to pop champagne: “Remember what we said, pressure is a privilege? We took all of that privilege! Let’s go!”

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