“We just came in for practice, and he said, 'Why were we the No. 1 team in the league?” Toliver said after the Mystics clinched that series, explaining her return to the starting lineup. “It’s because of style of play, being true to us and playing our game.”
Washington believed then that playing its brand of fast-paced, high-energy, fluid basketball would carry it to a win in the semifinals, and the Mystics believe the same now on the eve of a decisive Game 5 in the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun that could bring the franchise its first league championship.
After they squandered their first opportunity to bring home a title with Tuesday’s 90-86 Game 4 loss in Connecticut, there is much at stake for Washington on Thursday at Entertainment and Sports Arena: A title would be the first not just for the organization but also for Thibault, the Mystics’ coach and general manager who has spent 17 years in the league and is on his fourth trip to the Finals, as well as for two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne, who at 30 has every possible accolade but a league championship. It would be the second major title in 16 months for team owner Ted Leonsis, whose Washington Capitals captured the Stanley Cup in 2018.
A win Thursday would also secure Toliver’s second title. She won her first with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016 with a 77-76 win in Game 5 against the Minnesota Lynx. As the only player on either team to have won a WNBA championship, she knows as well as anyone that the Mystics must stick to their style of play Thursday night — and that starts with, well, a good start.
The Mystics trailed by 18 at one point in the first quarter Tuesday and ended it trailing 32-17, a cardinal sin in a series in which the winner of the first period has gone on to win every game.
“The team that’s been digging themselves in holes has been the team that’s losing, so we obviously know what’s at stake on Thursday, and we have to respond,” Toliver said Tuesday. “ … We know we can play a whole lot better and a lot smarter. Even with them playing extremely well, we were right there. We keep saying it, but we haven’t played our best basketball yet.”
Washington made 6 of 20 shots in the first quarter and shot 44.1 percent in the first half of Game 4, numbers well below standard for the team’s record-setting offense. The Mystics said improving lateral ball movement before Thursday will be key, especially because an injured Delle Donne hasn’t been driving to the basket like she normally does.
The league MVP has a herniated disk in her back that is pinching on a nerve; of her five field goals Tuesday, just one was a layup. Her scoring has dipped, naturally, from 21.4 points per game this postseason before her injury to just 12 in the two games she has played since getting hurt early in Game 2.
When the Mystics execute their offense well, they have the scoring prowess to stay afloat without a big lift from Delle Donne. She scored 13 points in Sunday’s Game 3, when Washington mostly dominated.
“It’s about us being aggressive on offense and playing our offense,” starting guard Natasha Cloud said. “We dribbled way too much in the first half. We were playing too much one-on-one. When we started getting touches and finding open shooters and moving the ball side-to-side — [the Sun] are not a great defensive team. We can pick them apart, their rotations aren’t great, and we have really great shooters on our team. Everyone needs to keep doing their role, be willing to shoot when they’re open and just play like us. Just do us."
On defense, the Mystics said Tuesday the keys to a win still lie in rebounding — Connecticut had 13 second-chance points in Game 4 — and not letting leading scorer Jonquel Jones and guard Courtney Williams get their hands on the ball a lot. Jones had 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting, and Williams had 16 on 7-for-17 shooting.
All five of the Sun's starters scored in double figures. Washington understands that one or two players are bound to have a big night — Mystics players have said they're willing to live with Alyssa Thomas going off, for example, as long as three or four other starters don't join her.
“Tonight, everybody [on Connecticut] got a little piece of the pie, and now we’re sitting here empty-handed,” guard Aerial Powers said.
As the top-seeded team, the Mystics have the advantage of trying to close out the Finals at home. Cloud said being back in their own beds and playing in front of their own fans can only help the Mystics play their style of game Thursday — but ultimately Cloud believes Washington possesses the tools, the experience and the talent it needs to bring home a title no matter what.
“It’s do-or-die time now. There’s no talking about it. There’s just doing it,” Cloud said. “Just going out, winning a championship.”