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Inside The W With Michelle Smith: Time Is Now For Mystics

No more patience.

“Yeah, I don’t think this team would be happy at all if we didn’t come away with a championship,” said Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne. “It’s a hard position to be in. We’ve had a great season and we plan to keep it going. But we know what we want and how talented we are and we aren’t going to be satisfied with anything less than a championship.”

The Mystics were riding a five-game winning streak heading into their game on August 4th against the short-handed Phoenix Mercury, a game that ended with a 103-82 loss that snapped a win streak and put the Mystics a half-game out of the top two sports in the WNBA standings.

Washington (15-7) will host a three-game homestand beginning on Thursday against Indiana, Minnesota and Seattle. With 13 games to go, the Mystics are no longer interested in a building process. They want to be built and ready by the time the postseason begins in a few short weeks, ready to take their shot at a title.

Three years ago, when Delle Donne decided to come to Washington, she not only made good on a desire to play closer to her family in Delaware, but she also put her faith in head coach Mike Thibault’s vision for the Mystics.

He touted “positionless basketball”, a multi-faceted offensive scheme in which Delle Donne would be the lead for a group that would score from every position and make defensive matchups a “pick-your-poison” choice for opposing teams.

And so in 2017, the work began.

“It was not easy. In fact, it got hard and I think there were points where I was thinking ‘This is not working,’” Delle Donne said. “But he had a vision and we believed it in and we’ve stuck with it.”

It worked well enough for the Mystics to reach the WNBA semifinals after winning two elimination games before being swept out by eventual champion Minnesota.

Jump to 2018 and the Mystics came to the postseason with 22 wins – the highest total since 2010 – and a first-round bye, narrowly missing the two-round bye to the semifinals.

And with Delle Donne playing through injury, the Mystics reached the WNBA Finals for the first time before falling in three games to Seattle.

Which brings us to 2019. The focus has turned from process to results. A team that was learning a system and integrating young players is now clicking.

“So many times, we don’t even call a play,” Delle Donne said. “We know each other so well, where to get someone the ball. But it has definitely taken years to get used to each other.”

And Thibault would tell you he doesn’t believe his team is all the way there.

“I think we still have some flaws and we are working on them and getting better,” Thibault said.

He likes the way his team starts games. He isn’t as pleased some days with how they finish.

But in a league with so much talent, he knows his team stacks up. Depth is better. Young players such as Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins are settling in. Tianna Hawkins has been strong off the bench. Players know their roles.

“We have multiple scorers, so the other team’s defense really has to be on point,” Thibault said. “Last year, in the Finals, we were beaten by a better team. A team that had players who could score from every position on the floor. We’ve grown up from that,” Thibault said. “Now we can do that to other teams. We are an improved team and with our depth, I feel like I can mix and match more.”

Six Mystics players are averaging at least nine points a game, led by Delle Donne at 18.8. The Mystics lead the WNBA in scoring at 87.2 points a game and field-goal percentage at 46.2. They rank second league-wide in assists and blocked shots.

“The fact that we have had so many games together as a group makes a big difference,” Thibault said. “Going through the experience of the playoffs last year, there were a lot of lessons learned for us. We know how important it is to get those byes (in the first two rounds), we can’t leave things to chance. Last year, we lost out on a double-bye by one game. But sometimes you have to go through it to figure it out.”

Atkins and Cloud were considered “sleeper” picks in the WNBA Draft.

Atkins is averaging 10.8 points a game as a starter. Cloud is at 8.9 and considered perhaps the best perimeter defender in the league.

Ariel Atkins

“She has matured into that,” Thibault said. “We give her the toughest perimeter assignment every night. And she keys things for us with her pressure.”

And Atkins is a “worker and a low-maintenance kid.”

“She’s a great young athlete and great wing players are hard to find,” Thibault said. “She is never afraid of a challenge.”

What Delle Donne feels most right now from her team is confidence and maturity.

“That’s what is making us so strong,” Delle Donne said. “Each night, you know people are going to show up and play hard and that the person next to you has got your back. It’s a whole different mentality. Before, I feel like we were still getting used to each other and we lacked that swagger.

“But now we know what we want and how we are going to get it.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.