- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The only time the Washington Mystics beat the Seattle Storm in the regular season was a 100-77 blowout on Aug. 9. It was the teams’ final regular-season meeting and, unbeknownst to fans at the time, a preview of the WNBA Finals.

But two games into this best of five, Seattle holds a 2-0 lead with the series shifting back east. The Mystics and Storm tip off Game 3 Wednesday at 8 p.m. at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia.

Fans might take comfort in the fact that Washington has beaten Seattle at least once, but a month is a long time ago in professional sports, and the Mystics are only studying tape from their recent losses, not that win.

“I’m watching what’s currently happening, what’s in the moment,” Mystics guard Kristi Toliver said. “Obviously we show that when we watch film, we get better. We got a lot better in Game 2 after not the best performance in Game 1. We’ll continue to build on that and dissect things and see where we can kind of pick them apart.”

With that in mind, here’s what the Mystics must do to extend the series:

Make their threes

Sunday was just not the Mystics’ day from behind the arc. They took 16 3-pointers and missed all 16. That followed a 3-for-21 performance in Game 1.

The Mystics lost Game 2, 75-73, meaning just one successful 3-pointer could have made the difference. But was it simply a matter of getting cold at the wrong time?

“I think it’s about focusing in a little bit more,” forward Aerial Powers said. “I don’t think any of us realized that we didn’t make one three until the end of the game.”

When they’re hot, they’re hot. The Mystics were top three in the WNBA in 3-pointers attempted and 3-pointers made per game. Coach Mike Thibault said it’s not the right time to abandon their identity of an outside-shooting team.

“We have a lot of good three-point shooters. Elena [Delle Donne] and Kristi and Ariel Atkins, Tianna Hawkins, they’re all top-level, top-10 3-point shooters,” Thibault said. “You can’t go away from their strengths.”

Defending down low

The Mystics, when they routed Seattle in August, held league MVP Breanna Stewart to 10 points, 2-of-5 shooting from the floor and three rebounds.

But Stewart has scored 22 and 25 points in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, respectively, and Seattle has outrebounded Washington 68-59 during the series.

“She’s not one you’re gonna stop, but you try to make everything hard for her and then hope that you can make it even harder for her teammates,” Delle Donne said.

The Mystics have had the most success containing Stewart when keeping her outside the paint, said center LaToya Sanders.

“She has really long arms, so when she catches it in the paint, it’s hard to contend. Nobody can really bother her shot,” Sanders said. “I think we did a good job when we were able to stay in front of her when she would penetrate.”

Sanders, known for her defensive prowess and mid-range jumper, put up 17 points and 12 rebounds in the August matchup while holding Stewart to two field goals. After going scoreless in Game 1, Sanders came back with eight points and three steals in Game 2.

Get Delle Donne to the line

Thibault has toed the line of complaining about officiating this postseason. Specifically, he thinks Delle Donne should be getting to the free throw line more.

After Game 4 against the Dream, he compared Delle Donne’s zero trips to the line with Monique Billings, an Atlanta bench player, getting 11 free throws. After Game 2, the same was said about Delle Donne’s three shots to Stewart’s 14.

Perhaps opposing teams are being more careful defending Delle Donne, because when she does get to the line, she’s automatic.

Yahoo Sports recently dubbed her the best free-throw shooter in professional basketball. She is 28-for-28 this postseason. A few more of those points could have meant Washington won Game 2 — just like one 3-pointer would have made the difference.

“We try to put her in positions where she can be aggressive and get to the line. The more aggressive you are, the more likely you are to get a call,” Toliver said.

Just another elimination game

The Mystics have faced elimination games three times in these playoffs — a single-elimination against the Los Angeles Sparks in Round 2 and two chances for the Atlanta Dream to close them out in the semifinals. Washington won all three to get to this point.

If any team is ready to fight with their backs against the wall, it’s these Mystics.

“I think we do play best when we’re under pressure,” guard Natasha Cloud said Tuesday.

“You can see it in our five-game series with Atlanta or the single-elimination game with L.A. before that. I think we play very under pressure and everyone steps up, so I’m excited for tomorrow.”

“I think we’re just a resilient group,” Toliver said. “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.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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