Mystics open tough road trip searching for consistency

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LOS ANGELES — Coach Mike Thibault made it sound simple, though he knows it isn’t, as he sat courtside Tuesday at Arena, hours before his Washington Mystics were set to open a three-game road trip against the Los Angeles Sparks. His team has looked like one of the best in the WNBA at times, posting victories against the top three clubs in the standings. The group also has had disastrous moments, including Thursday’s loss to a New York Liberty team that started the season 1-7.

Consistency has been an ever-present issue for these Mystics.

“It’s interesting. It helps when you have your whole lineup,” Thibault said, “which is what we had on Sunday. We had the whole lineup. We had a day to fully prepare. It was the only full day we’ve had to prepare in the previous eight or nine days, whatever it was. . . . I think consistency comes with consistency of your lineup, consistency of some preparation time. And then if you shoot the ball better, [you look] consistent, too. I don’t have any simple answers for that right now other than you try to prepare the same, and we had a very thorough preparation from a film standpoint for this. But we don’t have the same lineup today.”

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There’s no surprise that the Mystics do, and should, look different when Elena Delle Donne doesn’t play. The team is taking a cautious approach with her back and is diligent in managing her load. She didn’t make the trip to Los Angeles because of a scheduled rest day. Delle Donne has missed seven games entering Tuesday’s contest and the team is 3-4 in her absence, though it did beat the defending champion Chicago Sky despite her leaving after playing just over seven minutes when her back tightened up. The two-time MVP leads the team in points and blocks per game and is second in rebounds per game. When she’s not available, the team naturally misses her.

The inconsistency of the lineup, however, goes beyond just Delle Donne. Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen and Shakira Austin are the only players who have appeared in every game for the Mystics. Heading into Sunday’s win over the Connecticut Sun, the starting lineup of Delle Donne, Shakira Austin, Atkins, Alysha Clark and Natasha Cloud had played together for a total of 35 minutes. Injury, illness and overseas commitments also have kept players out of the lineup.

“I think we’re learning how to deal with it,” Atkins said. “It’s not something you really want to get used to. But at the end of the day, it just kind of is what it is. . . . You’ve just got to deal with it. Like [Clark] said, if we lock it in on the defensive end, the offensive end will come.”

Clark, a two-time all-defense selection, preaching defense as a way to gain consistency is no shock, either. She wants the Mystics to be the best defensive team in the league. They lead the WNBA in defensive rating (94.9) and points allowed per game (74.6). The points are the fewest the Mystics have allowed since 2015.

That’s what made recent losses to the Liberty and Phoenix Mercury particularly frustrating — too many defensive lapses.

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“I think just understanding that defense is what fuels us,” Clark said. “Regardless of who’s in the lineup, as long as everybody hangs on to that and buys into that, I think you can start to see a little more consistency.”

That consistency will be much needed this week; there won’t be much time for practice during a trip to Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas. The games are every other day, and the team will mostly watch video and try to recuperate as much as possible during travel days. Not only is the schedule brutal, but the group also will be tested by the Aces (13-2), who had the WNBA’s best record entering Tuesday, and a Storm team (10-6) with the fourth-best record in the league.

The Sparks, however, represent a chance for two wins — in a way. The Mystics have the right to swap first-round picks with the Atlanta Dream after trading the No. 1 overall pick to the 2022 draft. The Dream selected Rhyne Howard while the Mystics moved back to No. 3 and took Austin. That first-round pick will come from the Sparks (5-9), so Washington is rooting for them to lose games for the chance to get a higher pick in 2023. The Mystics can affect that Tuesday night.

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