En route to winning the 2019 WNBA Championship, the Washington Mystics steamrolled through the opposition, breaking offensive records left and right. Whether it was the most victories by 20 points or more in a season (13), the most 3-pointers made in a season (316) or the highest offensive rating in league history (113.2), they seemed untouchable.
Fast forward three years later and Washington remains a good offensive team - not the juggernaut the 2019 team was - but their offense is no longer where the team prides itself.
Over the past two sub-par seasons by Mystics standards, head coach and general manager Mike Thibault developed a new focus. If they could prioritize their energy on the defensive side of the ball, they wouldn't have to be setting records every night to contend. In situations where they don't have the star power - because of free agency, injuries or any other factor - their collective defense would power them through rough patches.
That was the new North star for the team to strive to. It wasn't seen immediately in 2021 but the foundation was being set.
Elevating the defense to an appropriate level wasn't going to be that difficult, either. Already Ariel Atkins had established herself as one of the top defenders in the league, making the All-Defensive teams every season of her first four years in the league. Natasha Cloud has averaged a steal per game each of her past three seasons and Elena Delle Donne holds a 1.51 blocks per game average in her career.
The defense was solid but Thibault wanted to make it elite.
"Defensively, we've learned over the last couple of years," Thibault said during media day at the beginning of the season. "We got spoiled. I mean in 2019, we were one of the best offensive team teams in the history of the WNBA and that's hard to sustain, I think we can recapture some of that. But there are nights you're not going to have good shooting nights or you have somebody missing with an injury and if you have something defensively you can hang your hat on every night, that can get you to some rough spots."
So, the team added Alysha Clark in free agency the year after she was named to the WNBA's All-Defensive First Team. Before this season, they brought in Elizabeth Williams who has the second-most blocks in the WNBA since she was drafted in 2015. Drafting in the lottery, Washington selected arguably the best defensive prospect available in Shakira Austin a month before the season.
All of a sudden, the Mystics had an Avengers-level collection of defensive studs.
"I mean, defensively, we are scary," Delle Donne also said at Media Day. "It's gonna be so much fun. When you have a team that can shut other teams down. That really has you go into a game with a different confidence. I don't think we've ever had a team that has this much of a ceiling or no ceiling defensively."
With the new identity, Washington has delivered. The Mystics posted the best defensive rating (96.0) in the WNBA. They held opponents to the second-lowest field goal percentage (43.0%) in the league and the fourth-lowest 3-point percentage (33.8%).
Ten of the team's 12 roster players post a top-40 defensive rating in the WNBA, led by Elizabeth Williams (86.8). Five players are in the top 12 of defensive win-shares, four of which are in the starting five.
Every season, the defensive efforts of the Connecticut Sun (a 96.3 defensive rating) and Seattle Storm (97.4) are championed. The Mystics make the case to be included in that conversation too.
"I think we've proven that we are (a championship-caliber defensive team) right now," Thibault said Tuesday. "I mean we ended up the No. 1 defensive-rated team by every metric. So I think that speaks well. It's got to hold up in the playoffs, but I think that we are very good as a team at following scouting reports and trying to take away certain things from teams and know what we're giving and what we're taking, I think that will carry over (into the playoffs)."
Fortunately for them, there's the old adage in sports: defense travels. That's going to be needed because Washington is likely going to be doing a lot of traveling this postseason. Seeded fifth, the Mystics will start the playoffs on the road and easily could be the lower seed in every matchup this WNBA Playoffs.
On Thursday, Washington begins its first playoff road trip in Seattle. The first two games of the series will be in the Pacific Northwest and if the Mystics are unable to force a winner-take-all Game 3 in D.C., they might not even get a home contest.
But Atkins, one of the three heads of the team's defensive snake, has faith.
"I think (defense can take the team) pretty far," Atkins said. "I think it's something that you can teach as far as angles and things like that, but wanting to get down and defend, that's not something you can really teach. So I think it's a true asset for us going into the playoffs."
The offense will hopefully be there. It's hard not to count on it with Delle Donne back healthy and playing every game, having the WNBA assists leader in Cloud and Atkins averaging nearly 15 points a night.
They'll score, as their 101.1 offensive rating will show you, and it will certainly win them games. But if Delle Donne and co. are to earn another ring, Washington is hoping another sports adage rings true as well:
Defense wins championships