Ask point guard Natasha Cloud whether the Washington Mystics mind the pressure of an elimination game, and she will happily rattle off a few reminders.
Start with rookie Ariel Atkins’s 20-point effort that helped clinch the WNBA semifinals against the Atlanta Dream in Game 5 and work backward. In Game 4 of that series, Elena Delle Donne scored 15 points while playing through a bone bruise in her left knee as the Mystics staved off elimination. Before that, there was a single-elimination game against the Los Angeles Sparks in which every Washington starter scored in double figures.
Rewind even further. Remember when Kristi Toliver scored a season-high 32 points in yet another single-elimination game against the New York Liberty to push Washington into the semifinals last year? Cloud does.
“We do play our best when we’re under pressure. Everyone steps up,” Cloud said Tuesday at EagleBank Arena on the George Mason University campus. “I’m very excited for tomorrow.”
The Mystics have won five of six playoff elimination games dating back to last season, a history that gives third-seeded Washington confidence heading into Wednesday night’s Game 3 of the WNBA Finals against the top-seeded Seattle Storm. Thanks to a 75-73 victory Sunday, the Storm carries a 2-0 series lead into the Mystics’ temporary home in Fairfax while renovations continue at Capital One Arena.
Washington is trying to become the first team in WNBA history to overcome a two-game deficit in a best-of-five Finals series.
“We’ve actually been pretty relaxed,” center LaToya Sanders said. “We’re not sulking, acting like the series is over. You’re supposed to win on your home court. We’re back home — sort of — and it’s our job to protect home court. We’ve always been good with our backs against the wall.”
Washington is desperate for a win, but Cloud stressed that putting too much pressure on Wednesday’s game could be paralyzing.
A victory in Game 3 keeps the Mystics in the running for the franchise’s first league title, for a chance to truly prove themselves against a championship-level team such as the Storm, which has two league crowns.
A title would bolster the résumés of Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP, and Mike Thibault, Washington’s coach and general manager. And it would make the Mystics front-runners next year in the hierarchy of hungry, talented and exciting young teams in the Eastern Conference.
But the Mystics aren’t looking at the big picture. Instead, they’re keeping their cool.
They’re happy with how they’re playing, aside from the 0-for-16 shooting from three-point range in Sunday’s Game 2, and they’re focusing on playing freely and furiously to keep the series alive. The Storm, after all, is playing for a championship and will face pressure of its own.
“Honestly, I think this whole time we’ve been the underdog. Seattle’s been the favorite in most people’s eyes,” Toliver said. “But I think we know that we’re the better team. We believe we’re the better team. We came up a little short in Game 2, but the series begins now. When you go home, you protect home court, you get a chance to put all the pressure back on them in a Game 5 situation.
“You have a new level of focus when everything’s on the line. . . . The more that’s on the line, I think that’s what elevates good players, is to be great in those situations.”
Seattle will try to avoid a repeat of its semifinal matchup against the Phoenix Mercury. The Storm led two games to none but lost twice in Phoenix before taking Game 5 back in Seattle to clinch the series.
Point guard Sue Bird said Tuesday that the Storm has a new appreciation for how that scrappy underdog mentality can fuel teams. The difference now, Bird said, is there’s a championship on the line for Seattle, not just a chance to advance.
“We learned in the Phoenix series that whenever you go up 2-0, regardless of location to be honest, you understand that teams are going to be desperate,” Bird said. “Teams are going to be that way on offense. They’re going to be that way defensively. Them being at home helps that cause even more so, so hopefully we can take our experiences from that Game 3 in Phoenix and go from there.”
Considering how closely Game 2 was contested, experience could prove to be crucial in Game 3. The Storm believes it learned from its previous series. The Mystics hope to lean on the past as well and escape elimination — again.