Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault walked into Entertainment and Sports Arena on Thursday morning knowing he was going implement three changes to practices from now on.
First, he vowed to stop practice every single time the Mystics made a mistake, halting for things ranging from a poor defensive read to a shoddy pass, as opposed to earlier in the season, when he might let play continue for the sake of teaching a play. Second, he was going to have the men on the Mystics’ practice squad play harder and more physically than they had all season. Then he was going to swallow his whistle.
“Don’t expect to get calls; don’t expect to get anything from anybody,” Thibault said. “You’ve got to earn everything you get. You might get fouled; you’ve got to play through it. You might get a bad call; you’ve got to play through it. And that’s the mentality: We have to make ourselves better in practice with little habits.”
With seven games remaining in the regular season, Thibault’s aim is to usher in playoff-caliber basketball early by mimicking the pressurized environment of the postseason the best he can.
The first-place Mystics (20-7) head to play the Chicago Sky (16-11) on Friday night with their dominant offense clicking and the chance at a top seed and double-bye in the playoffs well within reach. So the focus for Thibault, from now until the team’s final game Sept. 8, is getting his team to think like they’re already in the playoffs.
That means simulating the physicality of the postseason and getting accustomed to officials letting teams play, though Thibault still will call fouls on his own players to get them acclimated to calls not going their way in heated situations. It also means adding a little stress to practice: No one wants to be the person whose small error got the five-on-five drill stopped.
“It ends up putting more pressure on the team, and that makes you feel like you’re in a playoff atmosphere,” Delle Donne said of Thibault’s tactics. “You know the stakes are high; some people are a little nervous; you know you’ve got to play with that pressure and play through it. So it’s good he’s prepping us early for it.”
On court, Washington spends 60-75 percent of every practice focused on defense nowadays. The team leads the league in five major offensive categories: points (88.6 per game), assists (21.7), field-goal shooting (46.9 percent), three-pointers made (246) and free-throw shooting (86.9 percent), but on the other end of the court, they could improve.
Washington’s defense is middling, their defensive rating seventh-best in the league with room to improve on rebounding and finishing out plays, Delle Donne said. As the Mystics prepare to face Los Angeles once and Chicago twice more this year — Friday and again in the season finale in September — they know defense could make the difference in their race for the top seed in the playoffs.
Chicago has the second-highest scoring offense in the WNBA, averaging just six points fewer than Washington with 82.6 per outing. The Sparks are the fourth.
“It’s probably our defense that will win those games more than our offense,” forward Emma Meesseman said, “since they’ll probably both be pretty high-scoring.”
The key to improving the defense isn’t so dissimilar from the key to getting ready for the playoffs, in Thibault’s view. Both require strict attention to detail.
Addressing small habits — things as minor as making a strong pass under pressure — also will help the Mystics as they continue to play without starting guard Kristi Toliver, who has missed the past four games because of a contusion in her right knee. Thibault said her recovery is “slow going” and that she likely won’t play Friday in Chicago or Sunday at home against New York. She could miss Tuesday’s game against Los Angeles as well. The team has signed guard Shey Peddy to another seven-day contract in her absence.
As Toliver’s injury illustrates, focusing on the little things is also the most efficient way to improve a team at this point in the season, when players’ bodies and minds are fighting fatigue and rosters are fighting injury.
“You can’t ask a player right now to be ten possessions better,” Thibault said. “But if every player on the team could be one or two possessions better each half, the cumulative effect is that is huge. Because [in the playoffs] you have to be more exact, more perfect, because teams know you inside and out. They’re going to take away the first and second option and get to your third option. You’ve got to know where the mismatch is. You’ve got to be better.”
LINK ORIGINAL: Washington Post