The Washington Post
Locked in and locking down
If defense wins championships, the Mystics are in good shape thanks to their ‘annoying’ style
New York Liberty Coach Sandy Brondello sat in a makeshift interview room inside Capital One Arena on Thursday when a wide smile crept across her face. Sporadic breaths escaped in a half-laugh as she began to talk about a Washington Mystics defense that would hold her team to its fifth-fewest points of the season soon after.
“Their guards, they’re annoying,” Brondello chuckled. “I love them, but they’re just tough-minded. They play big minutes. They compete. They love that side of the ball, and they have really good chemistry with each other. They’ve got post players that can cover them when they need them with their length — [Elena] Delle Donne that can shot-block and Elizabeth Williams. To be a great defensive team, it’s five players on the court doing what they need to.”
Brondello is far from the only one in the WNBA to be driven to nervous laughter by the Mystics’ defense. Three-time all-star guard Kayla Mcbride of the Minnesota Lynx recently tweeted, “I wish I could explain to y’all what sucks about the clark, cloud, atkins combo but you gotta go thru it to understand . . . literally.” She added the hashtag, “I just wanna take an open shot.”
“They’ve definitely hung their hat [on defense],” Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said before the Mystics held them to a season-low 57 points Sunday.
Washington (17-11) has championship aspirations and will lean on its defense as it strives to accomplish that goal. Entering Friday’s games, the Mystics led the league in points allowed per game (75.0), ranked second in defensive rating (94.3), stood fourth in threepoint percentage allowed (33.3) and were fifth in field goal percentage allowed (42.7). All of those numbers are improvements from the Mystics’ 2019 title-winning squad.
If defense wins championships, the Mystics are in an enviable position. Before last season, when the Chicago Sky finished eighth, 11 straight WNBA champions had ranked in the top four in points allowed. The top-rated team has won the title in three of the past six seasons: the Seattle Storm in 2020, the Lynx in 2017 and the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016.
Mystics Coach Mike Thibault is quick to point out that everyone talks about Washington’s prolific 2019 offense but overlooks that it had one of the best defenses during the season’s second half. The winningest coach in WNBA history is known for offense, but he expected 2022 to be different.
“This time we’re a little more physical,” Thibault said. “We have more size in the lane as far as physical size. Shakira [Austin] is
bigger than Emma [Meesseman] — not a lot but bigger and longer. We have big wing players in [Natasha Cloud, Alysha Clark and Ariel Atkins] — they all have decent size about them. And we’ve tweaked a few things, too, just to adjust to how teams are playing. Honestly, we haven’t gone into a game where you’ve said we’re outmatched.”
Brondello and Mcbride were talking about the trio of Cloud, Clark and Atkins. All three have received all-defensive team honors, with Atkins the only player in league history to be named to one of the teams in each of her first four seasons. Delle Donne believes Clark should have been named defensive player of the year in 2020. Delle Donne is an underrated defender, too; she averages a block per game. Cloud (second), Clark (fifth), Delle Donne (seventh) and Atkins (10th) rank in the WNBA’S top 10 in defensive win shares per game.
“It definitely helps when you have a lot of above-average, really good defenders,” Clark said. “It definitely helps your defensive chemistry. It makes games a lot easier. You don’t have to really overthink. You can just kind of play to the strengths of what you have on the floor night in and
night out. And that helps us to be able to be so consistent on the defensive side. So, yeah, it’s just as simple as having multiple defenders at every position, and it makes your job easier night in and night out.”
Williams was first-team all-defense in 2020, and this year she leads the league in defensive rating (86.4) among those who have played more than 12 games. She was expected to be the starter this season, but the play of Austin, the No. 3 draft pick, has pushed her into a reserve role.
Austin is 20th in defensive rating (93.4) — that work against some of the league’s top players earned her the starting role. Thibault said she instinctually knows where to be and when to help. Austin has been able to battle against opponents much stronger than she faced in college, and Clark called her fearless. At 6-foot-5, she has the mobility to switch and guard multiple positions.
The defensive skill of Delle Donne, Austin and Williams in the paint allows the guards and wings to be extra aggressive on the perimeter.
“My dad has always put a defensive mind-set onto me from a young age,” Austin said. “So pretty much all of what I’ve been doing is instinct. Some of it is learning what player tendencies are, but, honestly, most of it is just me going out there and understanding what most people want to do.”
It appears the rookie has learned from Clark, who is known for memorizing opponents’ tendencies. Her film work is renowned in the WNBA, and her basketball IQ often has her coaching defense during workouts right along with Thibault’s staff.
Beyond the starters, Shatori Walker-kimbrough, Myisha Hines-allen and Tianna Hawkins are versatile defenders with Williams on the second unit. The Mystics have gotten more practice time recently as the schedule has slowed. They have used that time to work on defensive details — and have allowed more than 74 points just twice in their past seven games.
Washington’s offense has been inconsistent, but its defense has kept it in contention. If recent history holds true, it could bring the franchise its second championship.