One year after bowing out meekly in the WNBA semifinals, the No. 3 seed Washington Mystics find themselves with another opportunity to advance to the championship round for the first time.
The obstacle in this case is the second-seeded Atlanta Dream, which will be playing its first game in a week when the teams tip-off Sunday afternoon at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion in Game 1 of the best-of-five series.
The Mystics, meanwhile, remain energetic despite short rest after dispatching the No. 6 seed Los Angeles Sparks, 96-64 , Thursday night in the single-elimination quarterfinals, riding the momentum from what center LaToya Sanders called perhaps Washington’s most complete performance this season.
Coach Mike Thibault gave his players off Friday and directed a short practice the next morning before the team left for the airport to board a flight to Atlanta, mindful of the significance of coming back to Smith Center, the Mystics’ home court for the playoffs this year, with at least a split heading into Friday’s Game 3.
Last year, the visiting Mystics lost to the Minnesota Lynx in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals, 101-81, on the way to getting swept, dropping all three games by double figures.
“I mean, we were in this last year with the Lynx, and we saw how quickly they were able to go up two games on us, and it ended so fast,” Mystics leading scorer Elena Delle Donne said. “So we know the importance of every single game, every single possession, and we’ve been through it, and we were on the losing side, so I feel like we were able to learn a lot from it.
“We will all make sure that everybody is ready and locked in.”
Washington avoided a regular season sweep to the Dream this year by winning the third and final game of the series, 86-71, on the road on July 31. Delle Donne led the way with 28 points and 16 rebounds, part of a torrid closing stretch for the 2015 WNBA MVP.
The first-team all-WNBA selection averaged 21.9 points and 7.3 rebounds over the final 10 games of the regular season. Delle Donne set the franchise single-season record for scoring (20.7) to help Washington match a franchise record for victories (22).
She had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the Mystics’ playoff opener in which all five starters scored in double figures. Washington shot 57 percent, went 13 for 13 from the foul line and set a franchise playoff record with 28 assists, including nine from Kristi Toliver.
“I think one of the things that happens too is that when you’re on the road to start a series, you actually can put more pressure on the home team,” Thibault said. “They know if you come in and steal one of the first two games, let alone maybe both, but if you can get one, the pressure has been put on them, and I think that’s kind of a nice position to be in right now for a team like ours.”
The Dream has been rolling lately, as well, going 7-1 to close the season and finish one game ahead of Washington to secure a coveted double-bye in the playoffs.
What’s more, Atlanta has been able to thrive without all-star forward Angel McCoughtry for the last five games. The two-time WNBA scoring champion tore ligaments in her left knee Aug. 7 in a 109-100 win against the Sparks and is out for the remainder of the season, marking the first time the Dream will participate in a postseason series without its franchise player.
McCoughtry averaged nearly 16 points against the Mystics this season, although Atlanta has adjusted since her injury by leaning more on its trio of guards, led by Tiffany Hayes. The WNBA player of the month for July averaged a team-high 17.2 points during the regular season.
Guard Renee Montgomery set the Atlanta single-season record with 78 three-pointers, including tying the WNBA record with eight in one game, this season after signing in February as a free agent.
Guard Alex Bentley has provided a boost off the bench since her arrival following a July 9 trade in which the Dream dealt Layshia Clarendon and a 2019 second-round pick to the Connecticut Sun in exchange for the 2015 all-star.
“We know what we’re supposed to do to play against them,” Thibault said of the Dream, which owns a 4-1 record against Washington in the playoffs. “We played them twice late in the season, lost a close one and won [the other], and I think our team has a good feel for what we’re up against.”