In the W.N.B.A. Finals, a Battle of True Believers

Unlike last season, when the Washington Mystics were satisfied with reaching the finals before losing to Breanna Stewart’s Seattle Storm, this time only a championship will suffice, as point guard Natasha Cloud told her teammates recently.

“I was hyped,” Cloud said of Tuesday night’s victory over the Las Vegas Aces to clinch a spot in the finals, adding: “Going back into the locker room, though, I was really calm. I said to the team, embrace this moment, enjoy, celebrate.”

She continued, “But we’re not satisfied.”

Neither the Mystics nor their finals opponent, the Connecticut Sun, are ready to settle as the fight for this season’s W.N.B.A. championship trophy begins on Sunday.

So many of Washington’s strengths are mirrored by the Sun, including one evident in how Cloud speaks about her team: unabashed confidence. Liz Cambage said Mystics players needed to “get in the gym” after her Aces defeated them in Game 3 of the semifinals; Cloud responded by doing push-ups on the court after the Mystics eliminated the Aces in Game 4. All season, Courtney Williams has been declaring her Sun the team that will win the title.

“They’re similar to us that they’d been together for a few years, so they have that experience of knowing each other on and off the court which I think adds to it,” Cloud said.

Another parallel between the Mystics and Sun is Mike Thibault, the Mystics head coach and general manager who coached the Sun from 2003-2012, taking a pair of teams to the W.N.B.A. finals but never winning. Then he came to Washington.

Thibault sees his seven years with the Mystics as two distinct rebuilds. His first job, after taking over following the 2012 season, was to make a 5-29 Mystics team into a playoff contender.

“When I walked into this place seven years ago, it was awful,” Thibault said. “I mean, the fans were down. The players’ spirits were down, everything. And so we had to rebuild that part.”

He managed that in a single season. The Mystics won 17 games in 2013 and reached the postseason, which they’ve done all but one season since.

Then came the second mountain to summit: acquiring stars and turning the Mystics into a team that can win it all. Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver joined the Mystics in 2017, and Thibault has built a cohesive group around them over three seasons.

“You have to go and get the stars,” Thibault said. “You have to get players that can really play at a high level. That was the next part of it. And these players have worked hard to get where they are. And I’m proud of them for doing it because it’s not easy to get to this level.”

Washington finished this season 26-8, earning the top seed in the playoffs and the double bye and home-court advantage that come with it, though as the lone team with a winning record on the road, the Mystics needed the latter less than anyone else.

The Mystics won frequently by blowout, finishing with the best offensive efficiency of any team in league history, and the greatest net rating — the difference between offensive and defensive efficiency — of any group since the 2000 Houston Comets of Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson, who captured their fourth consecutive league title that year.

The conversation with the Mystics always starts, as it should, with Delle Donne, who somehow found another level above what was already a Hall of Fame-track career. She won her second Most Valuable Player Award at age 30, even after a bone bruise in her knee, sustained during last year’s playoffs. That limited her off-season work and briefly delayed the start of her 2019 season.

“I don’t think people give Elena enough credit for how much she continues to grow,” Cloud said. “Even from last year to this year, she understood that in order for us to be a championship-caliber team and to run it back and get back to a finals, that she needed to grow as well, not only in her talents, but on the defense end, on the rebounding end, on the assist end. She touches every facet of a box score, and that’s what separates her from the rest.”

What separates the Mystics isn’t just Delle Donne, though, but the growth and development of the entire team.

Toliver came to D.C. in 2017 having already won a championship in Los Angeles, but this season she posted the best assist percentage of her career and her highest true shooting percentage since her rookie year.

Critically, she, too, returned from a bone bruise, getting stronger in each game of the semifinal series with the Aces. By Game 4, she’d ditched the knee brace and played 36 minutes, scoring 20 points, and she created her own shot where few other players would have seen an opening.

“We were just trying to hope we’d get her to 20, 22 minutes early on in the series and get her going,” Thibault said. “But ultimately, I think we all knew that at some point during the series we were going to get her back in the starting lineup. She’s never going to be 100 percent in the series, but we’ll take each increment that we’re getting right now.”

The Mystics have also gotten star turns from players like Emma Meesseman, the 6-foot-4 Belgian who scored 57 points in the first two games of the Las Vegas series without turning the ball over, and Cloud, who took on a larger offensive role with Toliver out.

Cloud’s versatility — she is capable of running the team, allowing Toliver to probe opposing defenses for pockets of open space without the ball — reflects sharp growth in her game, from marginal league player who struggled with her shot just a few years ago, to the guard who played the most minutes of any Mystic in 2019. Her 18 points and 11 assists without a turnover in Washington’s Game 2 win over the Aces may be the best performance of any point guard in the playoffs this year.

“I was just a kid from a mid-major trying to stay in the league,” Cloud said, referring to her college tenure at St. Joseph’s of the Atlantic 10. “Five years later, I’m a starting point, I’m our best perimeter defender, I had the most assists on the team and I really think the team goes as I go with tempo.”

And while a W.N.B.A. championship is the missing piece from Cloud’s résumé, and those of most of the Mystics, putting a title next to the two M.V.P. trophies Delle Donne already has would push her to the top of the league’s pecking order.

“I think I’m biased, because she’s my teammate,” Cloud said. “But I think she’s the best player in the world.”