- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Washington Mystics were such an offensive juggernaut during the regular season that they sometimes felt their defense was overlooked, even underrated. Not so on Tuesday night, coach Mike Thibault said, after they clung on to win 97-95 in Game 1 in the league semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces.

Though he was already visualizing the list of what the Mystics should work on in practice before Thursday’s Game 2, the narrow win didn’t cause Thibault to have a sleepless night.

“If I’d walked out of there saying ‘OK, I feel miserable even though we won,’ because I didn’t think we could get better, then it would be an issue,” Thibault said.

While Washington worked, the Aces took a different tack, electing to cancel Wednesday’s practice. There could be a few reasons for that decision — they played Sunday in Las Vegas before flying east, so physical recovery could have something to do with it.

The Mystics hadn’t faced much adversity in the final weeks of the season, when they won their final six games by an average margin of almost 17 points. But facing a 57-50 halftime deficit after being outplayed in the second quarter, players said no one lost their cool in the locker room.

“Our maturity is better than last year,” LaToya Sanders said. “Not, like I said, panicking when a team goes on a run, which was something that we did last year. Being able to come back from deficits and stuff like that.”

The Mystics pinpointed their play in transition as an area of concern. Las Vegas scored seven fast-break points on 3-for-3 shooting just in the first half. Washington didn’t have a single fast break in the same span.

“It was literally, the only thing we said at halftime was to stop transition. Stop transition buckets,” Sanders said. “Maybe we would be cross-matched, maybe a guard would be on a big or a big on a guard. But to just match up, and then we’ll figure it out on the fly.”

But transition defense was “not necessarily” the primary focus of Tuesday’s practice.

“It’s something that we talked about in film. But from the standpoint of today’s practice, it’s just how to make us better,” Natasha Cloud said. “Whether it’s our offense, whether it’s figuring out how to guard certain plays that we maybe struggled with last night.

“Transition defense is about getting back and protecting. That falls a lot on the guards, but also our bigs getting back and not playing so much on the rebounds when (the opponent) secured it, because they’re pushing it at us.”

Thibault also felt they improved on transition defense after halftime and hoped it would carry over into Game 2.

“I think because we’ve been through this before — if this were our first time going through this maybe we wouldn’t have that,” he said. “But they know the sense of urgency. They know the importance of trying to correct 4 or 5 things … that we can do better.”

While the Mystics have “been through this before,” the Aces have not. They are competing in their first postseason since 2014, when the franchise was known as the San Antonio Stars and rostered none of the top players and No. 1 overall draft picks they do today.

Still, Aces coach Bill Laimbeer is no first-timer. He coached the Detroit Shock to three WNBA titles in the 2000s decade.

“We’ll have our moments that we fall down, but overall if we can do a little bit better effort consistently throughout the game, we’ll have a good chance to win again,” Laimbeer said after the game.

Game 2 tips off at 8:30 Thursday on ESPN2.

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

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