- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2019

Name an offensive category, and the Washington Mystics probably lead the WNBA in it.

That goes not only for simple barometers like points per game (86.8) and shooting percentage (45.7%), but also for assists per game (21.3) and advanced metrics like offensive rating (109.6).

But a potent offense is nothing new for the Mystics. Instead, what they feel has truly elevated their performances of late is their collective defensive effort.

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After sweeping a four-game road trip, the Mystics stretched their winning streak to five straight Saturday with a 102-59 beatdown of the Connecticut Sun, an opponent that entered the game with the best record in the league. Washington held the Sun to 30.1% from the floor, caused 14 turnovers and stymied their shooters at every turn.

“It’s held its own for five straight games now, and that’s why we have five straight wins,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said of their defense. “Because we’re holding teams in the 30-something percent range, instead of the 45 or 46 that it was the first couple weeks of the season. It’s the difference. We still are gonna score. We scored before, but we weren’t stopping people and now we are.”

Point guard Kristi Toliver — one of the team’s veteran leaders and someone who has won a WNBA title before — felt that coming up short in last year’s playoff run has motivated the Mystics to up the effort on defense.

“Everybody’s just a year older, a year wiser, and knows the importance of playing both ends of the floor,” Toliver said. “Obviously last year we were close to winning what we wanted, and we know that if we can continue to play at a high level on the defensive end, we’re gonna give ourselves a really good chance to be on the good end.”

Individually, Toliver herself is also playing strong defense, though she said it used to be a knock on her early in her career. She said former Los Angeles Sparks coach Carol Ross “encouraged me and changed the level of my defense” before Toliver came to the Mystics.

“That was never my No. 1 priority as a player,” she admitted. “Honestly, since (Ross) and kind of moving forward, and just understanding the true importance of it, I’ve tried to continue to get better every year.”

Other individual defensive efforts jumped out Saturday. Aerial Powers, coming off the bench, collected four steals. Elena Delle Donne and LaToya Sanders combined for 17 rebounds off the defensive glass. Tight defense, especially from Washington’s guards, forced Connecticut into poor shot attempts, even on some would-be breakaways up the floor.

Tianna Hawkins said moving into first place in the WNBA standings felt “amazing,” but added she and her teammates were hardly finished. The Mystics are keeping an eye on the ultimate prize, one that won’t be awarded until the playoffs end in October, and a defense this stellar could be the piece they were missing last year.

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