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The more Elena Delle Donne plays, the better the Mystics’ offense looks

Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (11) tied a season high with 26 points against Chiney Ogwumike (13) and the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday. (Keith Birmingham/The Orange County Register/AP)
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PHOENIX — Mike Thibault remembers the first time he saw Elena Delle Donne play. She was an eighth-grader running point guard and had a sequence that Thibault recalls to this day.

Delle Donne came off the pick and roll and dribbled behind her back before stepping back for a three-pointer. The next time down she threw a cross-court dart of a pass to a teammate. Thibault just shrugs his shoulders and turns his palms to the sky at the thought of it.

Nearly two decades later, Delle Donne has two WNBA MVP trophies, a league championship and an Olympic gold medal. She’s healthy and helping the Washington Mystics look like title contenders with the team’s offense in its best stretch of the season.

“I preach all the time about consistency,” Thibault said. “Well, it’s a lot more consistent when Elena plays most of the games. It’s no coincidence that our offensive efficiency is going up the more she’s played.

“It's not rocket science.”

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The Mystics were 4-1 in their past five games heading into Thursday night’s game at Phoenix, and the offense has started to look like it should with all of the weaponry on the roster. The team averaged 78.7 points and ranked 10th in the league through the first 20 games of the season. In the past five, it has put up 86 points per game and set its season high for points twice.

Washington is also third in the WNBA in field goal percentage (48.0), fifth in three-point percentage (39.8) and third in effective field goal percentage (55.3) over the course of those past five games.

The presence of Delle Donne seems to be the biggest factor; she has been available more after the grueling stretch of the season’s first 20 games. The team implemented scheduled rest days to help manage her surgically repaired back early this season. She missed only one of the past five games, a loss to Connecticut on July 3.

“Having a player like [Delle Donne] just changes how defenses have to play against you,” Mystics forward Alysha Clark said. “So it opens different things up. And then, too … our bench is coming in playing really confidently right now.

“And I just think we’re finally starting to understand where each other likes to play, have a little chemistry in that way. Just learning one another and finally being in a place where we can just play and flow.”

Delle Donne added: “This has all been part of the plan. I’ve been able to continue to get stronger and continue to work, get comfortable.”

The 94-81 win against the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday was a perfect example of that. The 94 points were a season high as were Delle Donne’s 26 points, Natasha Cloud’s 21 and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough’s 12. Delle Donne was efficient (10 for 14) and used a bevy of moves to beat double teams and score through contact. She also got the Sparks’ defense out of sorts by finding open teammates when the extra defenders came.

But it’s not all about Delle Donne. Cloud directed traffic as well as a point guard can against the Sparks. Walker-Kimbrough played so well that she was on the floor down the stretch of the fourth quarter. Everyone seemed to make the extra pass, but it was more than just swinging the ball around the perimeter. Passers used ball fakes to move defenders and found wide-open shooters in perfect position despite challenging angles.

“That’s just the evolution of offense as you go throughout the season,” Clark said. “You understand tendencies of other teams and what they like to do on defense, and you exploit that. So that’s the difference between just the next pass and the extra right pass. It’s just knowing what’s coming and reading what they give you.”

Thibault credited the improvements to getting out of the tough part of the schedule and having a chance to practice and shoot the ball more. The team also has been able to get more reps in running the same sets, and Thibault has liked the increased pace of play.

Walker-Kimbrough and Myisha Hines-Allen have come off the bench to bolster a second unit that has struggled at times. Walker-Kimbrough can be streaky but has proved to be a knockdown shooter during her career. She has posted back-to-back 12-point games and tends to get a lot of open looks. Hines-Allen scored 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting in a win over Atlanta on July 6, and her decision-making has helped the offensive flow.

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“It was real slow in the beginning of the season,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “We have good coaches and good teammates that genuinely have confidence in me. And, honestly, it’s just trusting the work. Not getting too discouraged. Trusting the process, trusting the journey.”

The Mystics have been one of the best defensive teams in the league, ranking first in points allowed (75.7) and second in defensive rating (95.4). Now the offense is starting to catch up with 11 games remaining as the team puts itself in position for what it hopes is a deep playoff run.

Clark noted that basketball is “a game of ebbs and flows” and she feels this is the offensive tide turning — as long as the Mystics keep taking good shots.

“Just keeping our aggression on both ends of the floor,” Clark said. “When we come out and other teams don't feel us first, it kind of has an effect on our offense. Having that attack mentality on the offensive side, putting pressure on the defense to have to guard, I think is just how our team plays best.

“Just being able to keep that intensity and that aggressiveness on both sides of the ball [and] we’ll be all right.”