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WNBA Finals Practice Report: Storm On The Brink, Mystics Trying To Survive

FAIRFAX, VA – After a travel day for both teams, the Mystics and Storm took the practice court at Eagle Bank Arena on the campus of George Mason University on Tuesday to prepare for Game 3 of the 2018 WNBA Finals, which tips off Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Seattle leads the series 2-0 and can clinch their third championship in franchise history with a win on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Mystics are searching for their first Finals win to keep their season alive and force a Game 4 on Friday.

Staving Off Elimination

This Mystics squad is no stranger to facing elimination and coming through with wins. They met the Los Angeles Sparks in the single-elimination second round and prevailed with a 32-point win to advance to the semifinals.

In the semis, they won Game 1 before dropping Games 2 and 3 – the former being when Delle Donne was injured and the latter when she missed the entire game – to put their season on the line. Down 2-1, the Mystics won Game 4 at home and the winner-take-all Game 5 on the road to advance to the Finals.

“I think we’re just a resilient group,” said Mystics guard Kristi Toliver. “We want to continue to play, and obviously when you’re playing for a championship, there’s a lot on the line. It’s when you’ve got to be at your best. When our backs are up against the wall, we’re going to come out punching and hopefully do the right things, and take it one game at a time.”

Seattle expects to see the best that the Mystics have to offer on Wednesday and a team playing with a sense of desperation that will be tough to match.

“It’s going to be similar to Game 2,” said Storm forward Breanna Stewart. “They were desperate to come out and be different than Game 1, because Game 1 did not go the way they wanted it to. Just being prepared for their punches and punch them back, playing consistent for 40 minutes.”

“We’ve got to have an appropriate sense of urgency,” said Storm coach Dan Hughes. “Sometimes that transfers pretty good defensively, but offensively you still play at the right speed. You’ve got to use those things to your advantage, but we’re going to have to have a sense of urgency, because obviously to them it’s a game for them that they’re going to bring everything they’ve got, every effort, every detail.”

“We’ve got to bring ours too, and understand that every time we take the floor from here on in, that sense of urgency has to be there and has to be appropriate to play defense and offense. On offense we don’t want to go 10 on a 10-speed [scale]. We’d rather be at a 7 or an 8.”

Going For The Title

Seattle enters Wednesday’s game needing just one victory to win the title and they have three tries to get it done. When the Storm won their previous titles in 2004 and 2010, they clinched in their first opportunity to do so.

In 2004, the playoff format was a best-of-three series with the lower seed hosting Game 1 and the higher seed hosting Games 2 and 3. Seattle lost the first game on the road, but won Game 2 to set up a winner-take-all Game 3, which they won to clinch the title.

In 2010, the playoff format was 2-2-1, the same that it is now. The Storm won the first two games of the series at home against the Dream, before heading to Atlanta in Game 3 and completing the sweep.

Eight years later, they will look to repeat that outcome when they take the court on Wednesday night. But only one player was on those previous teams – point guard Sue Bird.

“When you’ve got a team like we have where a lot of our players are going through this experience (for the first time) — we’re not like L.A. and Minnesota where they’ve been here and had those experiences — we have to learn from the experiences that we have,” said Hughes.

“It’s been a common theme, whether it was the end of the year or it was the playoffs, win or lose, we’re about learning things. We’re about gathering something from that experience that can be useful. We went through that in our first series. You’re on the road and you have a team that’s ready to really accelerate, and you’ve got to deal with it. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier, but at least you have the knowledge of it, and it’s not a new experience that you’re just talking about. It’s one you’ve been in.”

The Storm were in this exact position in their semifinal series with Phoenix. They won the first two games at home and went on the road with a chance to close out the series but were unable to do so. Phoenix won Games 3 and 4 to force a Game 5 back in Seattle, which is something the Storm definitely don’t want to repeat in the Finals.

“I think that series, looking back on Phoenix, is something that we really learned from,” said Stewart. “Letting a team back into the game, end of game, how we’re handling things. Now it’s just another step in our growth and maturity is winning on someone else’s home court.

“When I look back at that series, Game 3 was kind of a wash. They came out guns blazing and we just couldn’t catch up. Game 4, honestly, was some self-inflicted stuff. We had the lead, (I) broke Sue’s nose, that made things a little different. The way we battled was better than Game 3. We know we don’t want to go back to Seattle to play. We want to bring the trophy back to Seattle.”

Washington’s 3-Point Shooting

After Game 2, both teams were surprised when they looked at the box score to see an 0-for-16 for the Mystics in 3-point shooting. What wasn’t surprising is that Washington’s lack of 3-point success was a much-discussed topic heading into Game 3. The Mystics have shot a combed 3-for-37 from beyond the arc in this series and plan to keep hoisting them up on Wednesday night.

“That’s our identity,” said Mystics coach Mike Thibault. “We have a lot of good three-point shooters. Elena [Delle Donne] and Kristi [Toliver] and Ariel Atkins, Tianna Hawkins, they’re all top-level, top-10 3-point shooters. You can’t go away from their strengths. We tried to balance offense the other night. We got inside and outside, and we scored in the paint more than we had in a long time, but we just didn’t knock down shots that we normally make. You’ve got to stick with who you are at this point in the season.”

“Yeah not a good time for that, but like Panda (Kristi Toliver) said a while ago, ‘You’re either on fire or your due,’” said Elena Delle Donne. “Something like that, I probably just butchered her quote, but we’re due.”

The Storm know they were fortunate that the Mystics came up empty with the longball on Sunday and don’t expect the same results moving forward.

“Yeah, and I feel unfortunate that we missed as many free throws as we missed,” said Bird. “That’s basketball. They go in and sometimes they don’t. I think it was Diana Taurasi that said it best as we were playing them that when it comes down to these games, it’s about playing basketball, and making plays and making shots.

“Do I think we did something defensively to cause that? I’m sure a little bit. Did they maybe miss some shots that they could’ve made? I’m sure, a little bit. You can go back and forth on that for days. I do know that I’m happy we won and that we did enough to win.”

Mystics Finding Balance

During the regular season, the Mystics had four players average in double figures in scoring – Delle Donne, Toliver, Atkins and LaToya Sanders – with Natasha Cloud close at 8.6 points per game. In the first two games of this series, the Mystics have had just three players in double figures each game, with only Delle Donne and Atkins doing so in both games.

“When we won the Atlanta series, for the most part, we averaged five players in double figures throughout that series,” said Thibault. “That’s one of the ways you take pressure off of everybody is getting more people involved in the offense. When teams don’t know to lock in on one particular person. Clearly, they’ve loaded up right now on Elena and Kristi. In the first game, Atkins made them pay, and the other night she struggled until the fourth quarter. We just need one or two more people to knock down some shots. The game gets easier. If it doesn’t, we’ll be done.”

As an All-Star and former MVP, Delle Donne knows that she must deliver with the season on the line, but says she can’t try to do too much on her own.

“I need to be able to stay involved, stay attacking, but I need to make sure my teammates are confident and comfortable when the time comes for them to hit too,” she said. “It’s been something we’ve been doing all season. We’re a great team. Most of us are always in double digits, and when we do that, we’re far better. I know the importance of attacking, but I also know that if I don’t have everybody else clicking and going, we won’t be effective.”

Delle Donne knows her teammates are ready for the moment and the pressure that Game 3 will bring.

“If I have to show them the importance of the moment tomorrow, then they’re not the people I think they are,” she said. “They all know the importance of tomorrow’s game. They’re all ready. Everybody’s still loose though. We can’t be tight and too worried. You’ve got to stick with your routine, do your thing. Everybody knows the importance of tomorrow.

“I’m not going to do anything different than what the Mystics do. I’m going to stick with what our offense has done all season long. We’ve been super effective. We’ve got tremendous players that can step up at any moment. It’s not about taking over and scoring 50. It’s about making sure everybody’s involved, everybody’s confident and we stick to what we’ve done all season long, because it’s worked.”

Stewart Back On Cusp Of Championship

Breanna Stewart is one win away from doing something she is very familiar with – winning a championship. While this is her first shot at the WNBA title, she entered the WNBA as one of the most decorated collegiate players of all time – the only player to ever win four-straight championships and four-straight Finals Four Most Outstanding Player honors.

In her first two WNBA seasons, the Storm went a combined 31-37 during the regular season and 0-2 in the postseason. That is more losing than Stewart had done in her entire life. And she entered her third WNBA season ready for a change. She not only led Seattle to the league’s top record at 26-8, she won league MVP honors and thanks to her 25-point performance on Sunday, has the team on the cusp of a championship.

“To be back in this position, in this type of environment where we’re competing for a championship, winning, putting ourselves in the right direction as far as what we want to do, that’s exactly what I want to do as far as my professional career,” she said. “So getting here, its been great, but I want to go home with the trophy.”

Stewart will rely on her previous championship experience in college to help her achieve the pinnacle at the professional level.

“It’s a big game and having the experience of doing it before on many different levels definitely helps,” she said. “It’s coming in here having the confidence of knowing what we need to do and doing it.”