- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2019

After a Washington Mystics victory in July, Natasha Cloud was heard bleating like a sheep in the locker room.

Don’t worry — that’s normal when Cloud is praising her teammate and friend, Elena Delle Donne, the “GOAT” or greatest of all time in Cloud’s eyes.

“She’s the best player in the world. Quote that. Period. Elena, you the best power forward in the world!” Cloud said. 

When Delle Donne thanked her from across the room, Cloud replied, “You’re welcome. Baa.”

Cloud then looked ahead to the fall, when the Mystics were certain to be one of the top teams in the WNBA playoffs.

“Even when I signed back this year, my first thing (I said) to Elena was, ‘I’m gonna get you a championship,’” Cloud said. “I think that’s super important, and for Coach too. But for this team. We all know this is a championship team but nothing’s gonna be given to us. We have to go out and take it.”

Now that their record-setting regular season is complete, it’s time for the Mystics to walk the walk. Washington is the No. 1 seed and the favorite to win the WNBA championship — which would be the franchise’s first title in 22 years of existence, the first in Delle Donne’s career and the first for coach Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in league history.

Clearly, the stakes are high for everyone involved, one year removed from the Mystics’ 3-0 series loss to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals.

“We won’t be happy if we come away short,” Delle Donne said. “That’s tough, to have a really great season like this and know that if we won’t get a championship, we won’t be happy. That shows that our goals are super lofty. Everybody’s ready. We’re gonna take a nice rest. We earned it, we deserve it, but then we’ve gotta come back and prepare for a brand-new season.”

Around Delle Donne is a strong core that includes Cloud, LaToya Sanders and key rotational players Tianna Hawkins, Emma Meesseman and Aerial Powers. The latter two are among the Mystics’ four leading scorers (Meesseman averages 13.1 points per game, Powers adds 11.4) despite usually coming off the bench.

The main question mark the Mystics face is the health of All-Star guard Kristi Toliver, who has sat for four weeks with a knee injury. A healthy Toliver could make a great Mystics team even more dominant in the postseason. Thibault said Sunday that Toliver is able to shoot again and may return to practice by the end of this week. They aim to have Toliver ready a few days before Game 1, but that is no guarantee.

So what lies ahead? Earning the top seed gave Washington a break until Sept. 17 and 19, when it will host Games 1 and 2 of one league semifinal series. The first two win-or-go-home rounds will determine the Mystics’ opponent; the lower-seeded team still standing after the second round will play Washington.

The most likely opponent is the fourth-seed Las Vegas Aces (21-13), who earlier this year jockeyed with Washington and the Connecticut Sun for first position in the league before losing star A’ja Wilson to an injury for a portion of the season. The Mystics could also draw the No. 5 Chicago Sky (20-14), whom they just beat in Sunday’s regular season finale.

There’s an outside shot that the eighth seed Phoenix Mercury could win its first two games and meet the Mystics in the semis. Despite Phoenix’s 15-19 regular season record, it’s not a matchup Washington would desire. The Mystics had little success guarding Mercury center Brittney Griner when they played in the regular season, with Griner even defeating constant double-teams to drop 30 points on them in a game in July.

That doesn’t take away from the Mystics’ reputation as the best team in the WNBA right now.

“When you win 16 out of your last 18, I guess you’d have to say you’re on an upward trend,” Thibault said. “Hopefully the layoff doesn’t give us too much rest, but we’re gonna try to balance out rest and workouts this week.”

Single-game playoff tickets go on sale Tuesday at 2 p.m. A package that includes tickets for all playoff games is also available.

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