- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2022

With two games left in the regular season, the Washington Mystics are already locked into a first-round showdown with the Seattle Storm. The match-up is sure to inspire some nostalgia. The Storm, after all, beat the Mystics in three games to win the WNBA Finals in 2018. That sweep helped fuel the following year when the Mystics bounced back and hoisted their first and only championship trophy.

Much has changed for the Mystics since. Despite Washington holding one of the league’s five best records at 20-14, this is not the team that dominated the league three years ago. Instead, these Mystics are a squad that has had to find its way back after consecutive seasons under .500. They’ve had to redefine roles and adjust to the circumstances in front of them. 

In short, they’ve had to try to rediscover their championship identity. 

“We are capable of winning a championship, but I think we’re capable of getting beat in the first round, depending on how we walk in and play,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “There’s a lot of teams in that boat. I feel like we’ve improved and we are improving, so I feel like that’s a good sign coming in … I’m optimistic in that regard, that we have more upside to us.”

Thibault admitted that some areas of the Mystics’ game have “taken a little longer” to come together than he hoped. Specifically, the coach pointed to the team’s offense and how Washington has had to move players in and out of the lineup. This season, the Mystics are averaging only 79.7 points per game — down almost 10 (89.3) from their championship season in 2019.

One of the challenges that the Mystics have faced is reincorporating — and managing — star Elena Delle Donne. The 32-year-old has made a welcome return to the floor this summer after playing in just three games over the last two years, but her previous back surgeries have required the Mystics to be diligent in overseeing the former two-time MVP’s workload. 

Delle Donne has appeared in only 23 of the Mystics’ 34 games, with the team holding her out of back-to-backs and certain road trips. Likewise, Delle Donne is now only playing 27.9 minutes per game — compared to 29.1 in 2019. Perhaps as a result of the reduced playing time, her scoring average is down to 16.7 points per game. That would be a career-low if not for 2021, when she was limited to just three games. 

Yet, even though the Mystics may not be at the same level offensively, their defense could very well be the reason they make noise in the playoffs. Washington’s defensive rating of 97.7 is the best in the league, according to Basketball Reference, and the Mystics are holding opponents to 75.8 points per contest.

Washington not only has reliable rim protectors in Shakira Austin and Delle Donne, but Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark give the Mystics swarming defenders on the wing — something they haven’t had in years past.

“I do feel like we’re in a good groove,” Atkins said. “One thing about this team is I feel like we’ve grown over the months. We’re getting into a good rhythm.”

Though they know their playoff opponent will be Seattle, home court advantage in the series is still up for grabs. If the Mystics win their last two and Seattle loses its last two, then Washington will host the Storm when the playoffs begin next week in a best-of-three series. But as of now, the Mystics would travel to the Pacific Northwest. 

Under the current format, the higher seed gets to host two straight home games. The Storm, too, prevailed in the regular season series, taking two of the three match-ups. 

Before the playoffs start, the Mystics have a home-and-home with the lowly Indiana Fever, who have lost 16 straight heading into Friday’s game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Washington hopes to use the outings as an attempt to generate some momentum heading into the postseason after dropping its last two games.

“Our team has a better understanding of the last two weeks of who we are,” Thibault said, “and what works best for us.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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