After a 3-0 sweep in the 2018 WNBA finals against the Seattle Storm, it would have been easy, perhaps even understandable, for Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault to want to shake up the roster. Though the team had reached the last round of the playoffs, they couldn’t so much as take a game off the loaded Storm.
On the other hand, continuity in sports is rare. Traditionally in basketball, teams with the most talent prevail due to the nature of how few people can physically play at a single time. The Mystics aren’t short on talent, but there’s more than just ability on the loaded roster.
The team, off to an 8-3 start since opening play in late May, knows who they are early. The ball is buzzing around the court with tremendous energy, the kind that can’t be bought or manufactured, that can only be earned with trust and understanding.
“When we lost the finals, it was straight back to business,” forward Tianna Hawkins says. “We were hurt and upset that we didn’t win. So coming into training camp, everybody was ready to go in and go to war.”
One early indicator of a team’s togetherness is assists and the Mystics have shown an incredible aptitude for sharing the ball early this season, averaging more than 27 per 100 possessions.
“The chemistry of playing together has a lot to do with it,” Thibault says. “We’ve done a good job with spacing. We penetrate and kick out to shooters. I think the other part of it is if you shoot the ball well, you’re assists go up. It’s all a reflection of the rhythm of the shot and if you make a shot.”
The Mystics are also leading the league in scoring with an absolutely blistering 108.7 points per 100 possessions. Though part of this points binge is a continuity among players with Elena Delle Donne (16.4 ppg) and Kristi Toliver (11.8 ppg) both picking back up as the team’s leading scorers, another explanation for the uptick is the team’s increase in three-point attempts, leading the league with about 33 per 100 possessions.
“And to put more shooters on the floor,” Thibault adds. “We have post players who can all shoot. Sometimes, our post players are our best shooters.”
So far the team has only lost to the Connecticut Sun and the defending champion Storm, as the group has proven beyond any potential hangover from last season’s run. It’s not uncommon for teams who lose the finals to start sluggish the year after, but the Mystics have so far avoided this fate.
“It’s a new season and we’re motivated,” Toliver says. “Usually, when you have the same people coming back, you’re going to click earlier than later. This is the start we should be off to. We’re continuing to learn every day.”
After injuries to the Storm’s Sue Bird and last year’s WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, some prognosticators picked the Mystics as title favorites. However, the team has so far been immune to any external pressures, adopting a cliché but effective “one game at a time” mantra.
“We know what we’re capable of as a basketball team and we’re taking it one day at a time,” Toliver says. “Everybody in this league can win it. There’s a lot of good teams. Whether people are choosing us or not, we’re not too concerned with it. We had [to believe] in ourselves when people picked us eighth.”
Pegged as preseason favorites, the team is well on its way to capitalizing on its fast start by turning in another strong postseason effort. But the team knows playing well early doesn’t necessarily translate to a championship.
“We know it’s going to be tough to get back to where we were last year,” Hawkins says. “We have a target on our back, but it’s a good feeling to have.”
With a modern style, players who trust one another, and a new home court at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights, the team couldn’t have realistically asked for a better start to the season.
The Mystics return home to play the Phoenix Mercury on Wednesday, July 10. For more information about the team’s current season, visit https://mystics.wnba.com.
Entertainment and Sports Arena: 1100 Oak Dr. SE, DC; https://mystics.wnba.com