This season, Thibault is watching his vision come to life.
It took six years, but entering Friday’s WNBA Finals rematch against the reigning champion Seattle Storm, the Mystics (4-2) have the best offense in the league. They are No. 1 in points per game, assists per game and three-pointers made, to name a few statistics.
“It’s the one I kind of envisioned,” Thibault said Thursday. “I think that having players who can do multiple things makes it hard for teams to lock in defensively. It’s hard to scout us; we don’t run a ton of grind-it-out set plays that people can say, ‘Okay, we’re going to take away Elena [Delle Donne] on this play; we’re going to take away Kristi [Toliver] on this play.’ We like to be a little more fluid so we’re harder to defend, and that’s just been kind of the goal. But it’s been a process of getting players who fit that mold, too.”
Washington attributes its improved offense to three main factors: The team is putting up a high volume of three-point shots; it has a bevy of players who can make such shots; and, in what is perhaps the most attributed factor by players and Thibault alike, those players actually like playing together.
Chemistry is the first thing the team references when asked about the improved offense.
Not only do these Mystics know each other’s tendencies better, but there is a lightness about the locker room these days.
That chemistry has led to better communication, which in turn has led to more self-correction and problem-solving on the court without Thibault having to step in.
“It’s a willingness to say anything to anybody,” guard Natasha Cloud said. “Like, somebody came up to me after the game the other night and said, ‘I thought you were so mad at me,’ and I wasn’t. I explained what I was thinking. But the fact that she could do that, when it hasn’t always been like that, matters.”
Said Thibault: “Just watch them interact with each other. There’s no drama, no nothing. Pat Riley used to write about ‘The Disease of Me.’ We don’t have it.”
What the Mystics have are shooters, and Thibault is putting them to use. This season is the fruition of Thibault’s long game: First came trades for Delle Donne and Toliver, followed by surprising and strategic draft picks, most recently in Ariel Atkins and Kiara Leslie.
Leslie made 38.1 percent of her three-point attempts in her final season at North Carolina State. Atkins was a 42 percent three-point shooter in her senior year at Texas who raised her 35.7 percent regular season average to 42.4 percent during last year’s playoffs. Thibault’s directive from the start has been simple: “Take the open shot,” Atkins said.
With players such as Atkins, Delle Donne, Toliver, Cloud, Aerial Powers and Tianna Hawkins on the roster, Thibault has encouraged his team to shoot threes freely.
To be certain, everyone in the WNBA shoots more threes than in 2013, when Thibault was hired. But no team has increased its attempts from beyond the arc as much as the Mystics.
In 2013, they averaged 13.3 three-point attempts per game. This season, they’re averaging 26 three-point attempts and making an average of 8.3, both league highs. More than one-third of Washington’s shots are threes.
Delle Donne said Thibault is wary of becoming too reliant on the deep ball and is working to make sure Washington gets its share of touches in the post as well. But for now, spreading out the Mystics’ shooters and letting fly is working: The team has the best offensive efficiency rating in the league, averaging 111.3 points per 100 possessions.
It’s not just guards such as Atkins and Toliver finding success beyond the arc; the Mystics’ bigs can pop off as well. In their last home game, Hawkins, a forward, had three three-pointers.
“The way that we’re able to stretch the floor and have so many players play different positions, it’s really helpful when you’re trying to spread the floor, get it up, shoot some threes,” Delle Donne said.
Washington’s newfound offensive dominance is particularly relevant in this rematch against the Storm (4-3). Last season, the Mystics couldn’t keep up offensively with a healthy Seattle team that had four reliable scorers.
A lot has changed for both teams. Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird are nursing long-term injuries, and Delle Donne is healthy after playing through an injury in the Finals. Now the Mystics have enough offensive gusto to keep pace with the Storm, especially in the reigning champs’ current state. But when it comes to offense, the team is focused on the long term.
The offense “is coming along,” Atkins said. “We have a lot of offensive power, and you’ll see it grow throughout the season as we figure out what each other likes, and we figure out how to really attack teams.”