After directing a cultural shift within the organization during the regular season, first-year Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault’s rebuilding project moves into Phase 2 on Thursday night when his club faces the Atlanta Dream in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Mystics (17-17) are the No. 3 seed following a season in which they more than tripled their win total from last year. They are making their first playoff appearance since 2010.
“It’s a new experience for a lot of these players,” said Thibault, who also serves as the team’s general manager. “Some that have been in the playoffs, it’s been a while for them, so I think no matter what happens throughout the course of the playoffs, it’s an experience all of our players need to go through.”
The Mystics enter the postseason on a three-game winning streak and have won eight of their past 12. Two of those wins came against the Dream (17-17).
The first was a 74-64 victory Aug. 23 at Verizon Center. The Mystics had four players reach double figures in scoring, with forward Monique Currie’s 15 points leading the charge. Center Kia Vaughn added 12 points and a team-high 10 rebounds, and point guard Ivory Latta scored 14 points despite missing 8 of 12 shots.
Five days later in Atlanta, Latta had a game-high 10 assists and matched a team high with 15 points in an 85-80 overtime triumph. Rookie guard Tayler Hill also scored 15 points, making all seven of her free throws and going 2 for 5 from three-point range.
Latta, who played for the Dream in 2008 and ’09, finished the regular season averaging a career high in assists (4.4), and her 13.9 points per game were a half-point short of establishing a personal best in scoring. She has been the most significant addition for the Mystics, who in recent seasons lacked a true point guard capable of both scoring and securing open shots for teammates.
Hill also has helped stabilize Washington’s back court. After adjusting to the pace of WNBA play for much of the season, the No. 4 overall pick from Ohio State has scored in double figures in six of the final seven games, matching her career high with 16 points in each of the Mystics’ past two games.
Hill’s 35 three-pointers were second on the team to Latta.
“You’ve got to go out there and show what you’ve got, but the thing is, we worked so hard to get here, we’re not going to get complacent with just going to the playoffs,” Latta said. “We want to go far. We want to win games.”
The Mystics will pay special attention to Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry. The 6-foot-1 guard-forward averaged 21.5 points to claim her second straight WNBA scoring title and is a leading contender for the league’s most valuable player award.
The Mystics, who went 2-3 this year against the Dream, were able to keep McCoughtry mostly in check in the past two games. She missed 26 of 41 shots and committed 12 turnovers.
“She’s a great player,” Currie said. “She’s going to get her shots, get her baskets, but we can try to contain her, limit her touches, crowd her when she gets the ball. Just make things difficult for her.”