Washington Mystics center Stefanie Dolson caught a pass at the three-point line during the second half of Friday’s 82-55 victory over the New York Liberty and began her shooting motion. When Liberty center Carolyn Swords stepped out to defend, Dolson dribbled to the free-throw line, where forward Kiah Stokes came to help on the double-team.
That gamble left Mystics forward Emma Meesseman open, and Dolson delivered the pass on a dime for an uncontested layup. It was one of five assists for Dolson, who played just 18 minutes but, according to Mystics Coach Mike Thibault, looked more like the all-star version of herself than that of a second-year player still adjusting to elevated attention from defenses.
Dolson remains among the players on the short list for WNBA’s most improved after serving as a reserve last season, and Thibault said she has to be in peak form in order for the Mystics (18-15) to win their first-round playoff series next week against either the New York Liberty or Chicago Sky.
Washington closes the regular season Sunday against the Atlanta Dream at Verizon Center and will be the No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re going to need everybody to be at whatever their best has been this year,” Thibault said. “That’s how you win in the playoffs, and if you have players that don’t step up, you’re going to struggle, and that’s part of scouting reports, trying to take people out of their comfort zone.”
During the second half of the season, opponents have turned to doubling Dolson, fronting her more often and denying entry passes, leading to noticeable reductions in scoring and rebounding over that time.
In the 15 games heading into the all-star break, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 WNBA draft averaged 14.2 points, had four double-doubles and scored in double figures a dozen times. In the 18 games since, she’s averaged 8.5 points, has reached double-figure scoring in seven games and had none with double-digit rebounds.
“Frustration comes with playing basketball in general, but it’s definitely harder when you become more of a focal point for defenses to take away,” Dolson said. “So it’s definitely frustrating, and I think being that it’s my second year I’m still learning how to deal with the frustration, not getting caught up in that. Coach is always telling me not to let that get to my head.”
Dolson’s disappointment was never higher than during Washington’s recent four-game road trip in which the Mystics were swept and she averaged 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds while getting to the foul line one time. Dolson is averaging 10.7 points and 5.6 rebounds this season.
Thibault has tutored some of the top post players in the league, including 2012 MVP Tina Charles, and among his best advice for Dolson has been to relax, assess how defenses are playing her and make the right decision. Sometimes that even means shooting a three-pointer. She’s made 10 of 21 going after 0 for 3 last year.
“I think she went through a 10-day period of frustration, particularly on that road trip, and in the last week or so, she’s kind of got herself back to where she was,” Thibault said. “She looked like the Stef from earlier in the season. I think sometimes when you’re a young player and you’re struggling, you speed yourself up instead of slow yourself down.”
Dolson had two of her least productive games this year against the Dream, including two points on 1-for-8 shooting and four personal fouls in a 73-67 loss Sept. 6 at Philips Arena. In the teams’ first meeting at Verizon Center June 12, she had four points and two rebounds in 16 minutes in a 64-61 loss.
Atlanta (14-19) has been problematic for the Mystics in general,too, having won 16 of the last 20 games in the series.
“Atlanta, whether or not they’ve made the playoffs, they’re still a good team,” Mystics guard Ivory Latta said. “They’ve had their ups and downs throughout the season.
“As far as us, we’ve had a pretty decent season, but we always want to go out with a bang in front of our fans, so we’re just going to go out there, have fun and play hard.”