This time around, the Mystics again are surfing a four-game surge into a nationally televised battle with first-place Connecticut, which sits a half-game ahead of Washington in the standings. But two things are different.
For one, the Mystics won all four of their previous games on the road during an 11-day, five-flight trip that would have been taxing if they hadn’t kept winning. Washington trounced its first three opponents by an average of 22.7 points and beat third-place Chicago and fifth-place Las Vegas along the way.
“You know it’s been a long road trip when being home feels weird,” Elena Delle Donne said Friday at the Mystics’ first practice back on their home court. “It was a long one but obviously great.”
The road was kind to Delle Donne in particular, and the quality of play coming from the Mystics’ star is the second big difference as Washington preps for its third meeting with Connecticut this season.
Delle Donne averaged 14 points and 8.6 rebounds in the first seven games of the season. In the past three, she upped her play to average 24 points and 9.3 rebounds with just a slight increase in playing time. Altogether, Delle Donne is averaging 17 points, good for fourth in the league, along with 8.8 rebounds, fifth best.
“She just kind of broke out of it, shooting wise,” Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said. “She got a little bit more aggressive herself, and her teammates got a little bit more aggressive about finding her. And, you know, she was missing shots the week before that she can make in her sleep most nights. She just missed shots, and that happens when you go through slumps. So hopefully she’s broken out of it for a long time.”
Delle Donne describes her uptick as more of a return to normalcy. After a lingering knee issue kept her from training regularly throughout the offseason and an aggravation of the same knee injury kept her out of the first game of the season, the 2015 MVP needed time to rediscover her shooting rhythm.
She has continued to wear a custom brace on her left knee, primarily for stability, in games and practices.
“I really didn’t get an offseason, so just coming back and playing was what I had to do to get comfortable, get my timing back, get my shot back, stop favoring my right leg so much and playing even,” Delle Donne said. “It took a lot just to get the confidence in my leg and know that I’m good and get my timing together.”
Washington felt Delle Donne’s absence — or relative absence — in its two meetings with the Sun. In the first, the season opener, Delle Donne didn’t play because of the injury. In the second, on June 11, she had only nine shot attempts and got to the free throw line just three times.
“Part of it was their defense, and part of it was our aggressiveness,” Thibault said. “I think we learned that we beat teams like that by having our best players with the ball in their hands a lot. … Certain plays you’ve got to make sure — we go two or three times down the court and she doesn’t touch it, that’s probably not a good formula for us.”
What did work on the road, in addition to Delle Donne’s resurgence, was improved defense. The Mystics held the Aces, Los Angeles and Atlanta below 40 percent shooting, and Chicago shot 42 percent.
Implementing that stringent defense is the focus ahead of Saturday’s 2 p.m. meeting at Entertainment and Sports Arena. Connecticut has five players averaging double figures, including an early MVP candidate in George Washington graduate Jonquel Jones, who is averaging 16.4 points, the fifth most in the league, and a league-leading 11 rebounds.
“You have to honor all five on the court, and Alyssa Thomas, she’s not your typical post player,” center LaToya Sanders said, noting the Maryland graduate who dropped 23 points on the Mystics in their first meeting. “She doesn’t want to post up, she doesn’t want to shoot, and she could probably lead their team in assists playing the four.”
Despite these teams’ familiarity, Washington players said Connecticut plays differently than earlier this season, having tinkered with its offense slightly. The Sun also is entering Saturday’s game having lost two in a row for the first time all season, at Chicago and Dallas.
But the Mystics are different, too, after their road trip.
“The reason we turned it around was our defense,” Thibault said of the four-game winning streak. “Offensively, we’ve been good from the start of the season — I mean, you’re going to have bad shooting games, but you can survive some things if you play great defense. … We got to the finals last year because of our defense. It’s going to have to be the same way.”