During the first 10 years of his WNBA coaching career in Connecticut, Mike Thibault almost always had a player he could lean on down the stretch. Nykesha Sales was one of the first. Asjha Jones followed, and in his final season with the Sun, Tina Charles was named league MVP.
The second-year coach and general manager of the Washington Mystics hasn’t had that luxury since arriving in the District to reboot a dysfunctional franchise. But the youthful roster he assembled this season overcame a dearth of star power to qualify for the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Mystics (16-18) will open their best-of-three series on the road against the second-seeded Indiana Fever on Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Washington earned its second straight postseason berth after having won a combined 11 games in 2011 and ’12.
“It’s definitely harder in the sense that at the end of games, you’d like to have somebody,” Thibault said of a go-to player. “But by the same token, I don’t think teams can lock in on somebody and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to take away the other team’s best player.’ We’ve had different players against different teams. I guess the good side of it is that [the Fever] isn’t going to focus on one particular player.”
In four regular season games against Indiana this year, the Mystics have had three players lead them in scoring. The teams split the series, with each winning twice on the road.
Center Kia Vaughn scored a season-high 22 points with eight rebounds in the Mystics’ most recent win, 74-61, on Aug. 8. Before that, small forward Monique Currie had 18 points in an 80-77 loss July 2. Rookie shooting guard Bria Hartley led the Mystics in scoring in the two other games against Indiana (16-18), which is making its 10th consecutive playoff appearance.
Most often this season, point guard Ivory Latta has been the offensive centerpiece, leading the Mystics in points (13.9 per game), three-point percentage (.396) and assists (4.4). The two-time all-star’s 81 three-pointers this year set a franchise single-season record.
“You want to have a team that can get contributions from a lot of people on both ends,” guard Kara Lawson said. “We don’t have a star. We’re probably the only team in the playoffs that doesn’t.
“Because we don’t, we have more of emphasis on doing it together and having multiple people play well. Some teams in these playoffs can have one or two players play well and win. We can’t.”
When the Mystics secured a playoff berth with Friday’s 71-67 win against the Sun, four players scored in double figures, including Latta and second-year forward Emma Meesseman each with 16 points. Hartley added 13 points and Currie 10.
One of Washington’s least-used players also had a significant part in the win when guard Kalana Greene deflected a pass, allowing Currie to collect the loose ball and draw a foul with 23 seconds to play. Currie’s two free throws gave the Mystics a 69-66 lead, and a Connecticut turnover led to two more foul shots from Currie.
Greene is averaging less than four minutes, but Thibault added her this season because of her defense. The fifth-year veteran did log increased minutes over the final three games when Lawson was unavailable because of a sprained ankle.
Lawson said she expects to be back on the court Thursday when the Mystics seek an early jump on winning their first playoff series since 2002. Last season, Washington opened the Eastern Conference semifinals with a victory over the Atlanta Dream but lost the next two games.
“That’s the beautiful thing about our team,” Vaughn said. “You don’t know which player to actually try to stop because any one of us can score 15 to 20 points in a game.”