Mys­tics make like War­riors, lead three-point rev­o­lu­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY AARON TOR­RES aaron.tor­res@wash­post.com

The three-point evo­lu­tion that sparked a rev­o­lu­tion in the NBA has reached the WNBA. Lead­ing the way are the Wash­ing­ton Mys­tics.

It’s all part of Gen­eral Man­ager-Coach Mike Thibault’s de­sire to play in a pace-and-space of­fense mod­eled af­ter that of the NBA cham­pion Golden State War­riors.

“That’s the way I’ve al­ways wanted to play, but you have to have the play­ers to do them,” Thibault said Tues­day af­ter Wash­ing­ton’s 100-70 win over Seat­tle. “When I came here there were hardly any three-point shoot­ers.”

So in the off­sea­son Thibault traded for Elena Delle Donne, a stretch-four and one of the premier shoot­ers in the league. Then came Kristi To­liver in free agency, giv­ing the Mys­tics three of the top four WNBA lead­ers in three­p­oint shoot­ing per­cent­age from 2016. (Emma Meesse­man led the league at 44.8, with Delle Donne third at 42.6 and To­liver fourth at 42.4.)

What has fol­lowed is the most three-point-happy team in the league, hoist­ing 21.9 shots per game from be­yond the arc. Even in a sea­son-worst shoot­ing dis­play in Thurs­day’s 67-54 win over New York, the Mys­tics showed their com­mit­ment to the strat­egy — they put up 25 three-point­ers de­spite mak­ing only four.

“I think that’s the iden­tity that Coach wants for us, to be able to play with good pace,” said To­liver, who has made 37.2 per­cent of a team-high 86 three-point at­tempts this sea­son. “We have a lot of good three-point shoot­ers on the team, so you have to play to your strengths, and one of our big strengths is the three-point line.”

That strength pre­sented it­self well Tues­day, when the Mys­tics made 10 of 24 three-point­ers. By half­time, the Mys­tics had shot 15 threes — a lit­tle fewer than half of their to­tal field goal at­tempts — and made eight.

“You’ve got to be able to guard the three,” said Tayler Hill, who along with To­liver ranks in the league’s top five in three-point at­tempts per game — though she went 0 for 11 on Thurs­day. “If you can’t guard the three, then you’re go­ing to lose most nights.”

Wash­ing­ton is hardly the only WNBA team to em­brace perime­ter shoot­ing. As in the NBA, it has be­come in­creas­ingly prom­i­nent. In 1997, the WNBA’s in­au­gu­ral sea­son, there were 12 three­p­oint shots taken per team per game. At­tempts have in­creased ev­ery year since 2013, when the three-point line was moved back more than a foot and a half to its cur­rent dis­tance of 22 feet 13/4 inches (21-8 in the cor­ners). Last sea­son the av­er­age was up to 16.1 three-point at­tempts per team.

That num­ber fig­ures to be eas­ily out­paced this sea­son, with eight of the WNBA’s 12 teams av­er­ag­ing at least 16.6 en­ter­ing Satur­day’s games.

But the Mys­tics have re­lied on out­side shoot­ing more than any WNBA team: More than 25 per­cent of their points have come from three-point­ers, in a vir­tual tie with Seat­tle and Con­necti­cut atop the league. Mean­while, 51.3 per­cent of their points are two-point­ers, which ranks last.

“You live by the three, you die by the three” is the adage that has been re­peated to jump-shoot­ing teams. So the Mys­tics are mak­ing sure to add va­ri­ety to their of­fense.

“You don’t want to live and die by the three, and I think we’re tak­ing a good amount, but we also at­tack the bucket as well,” Hill said.

It has worked well enough to help lead the Mys­tics to a 10-5 start, first place in the Eastern Con­fer­ence, en­ter­ing Sun­day’s game at de­fend­ing WNBA cham­pion Los An­ge­les (11-3). The Mys­tics av­er­age 107.1 points per 100 pos­ses­sions, fourth in the league.

The Mys­tics are work­ing on find­ing that bal­ance, and they have given hints of what can hap­pen when they do. Which raises the ques­tion: On days such as Tues­day, when they are scorch­ing op­po­nents from three and slic­ing them up from two, how do you stop them?

“I’m not go­ing to an­swer that ques­tion,” Hill said. “They’re go­ing to have to fig­ure it out on their own.”

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Mys­tics added Elena Delle Donne, above, and Kristi To­liver to give them three of last sea­son’s top four three-point shoot­ers.

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