Last Sunday in the Nation’s Capital, Shey Peddy hit a three from the top of the key to put the Washington Mystics up 103-65 on the Indiana Fever late in the fourth quarter. Even though the game was no longer in doubt, the crowd erupted. News had apparently spread that Peddy’s triple, DC’s 18th of the game, broke the WNBA’s single-game record for three pointers made. The record-breaking three capped off an unbelievable offensive performance and an emphatic win, one that keeps Washington atop the WNBA’s standings. It was a beautiful moment and one that we will look back on if the Mystics reach their goal of winning the championship.
However, a more subtle moment from this game will stick out to me if Washington raises the trophy this year. It was Ariel Atkins making Erica McCall eat a shot in the second quarter after a frantic DC defensive possession. Every single Mystic switched assignments during the play; every single Mystic communicated and stayed active; every single Mystic anticipated the Fever’s play. Atkins came up from behind and swatted McCall’s shot at the rim. It was one of the best defensive possessions of the year for the Mystics and, more importantly, it showed that this team is capable of playing championship-level defense. That is a terrifying thought for the rest of the league.
Rediscovering the commitment to defense
The ‘Stics have won six straight games, 11 of their last 12 games and are the first team to win 20 games. All year, they have largely relied on their stellar offense. They lead the league in pretty much every offensive statistical category, including points per game, field goal percentage, and turnover percentage. DC has a 112.4 offensive rating while no other team has an ORTG over 100. In short, they have one of the best offenses in WNBA history and that offense is what has made them the best team in the league. But Washington knows that it is their defense that will get them to where they want to go.
“We were so close to having a championship last year, and we knew as a group that we could have been better on the defensive end for the majority of the season. From the beginning of training camp this year, it was a point of emphasis,” said All-Star guard Kristi Toliver earlier in the season. “When you start to prioritize things about winning, defense is going to be at the top of the list. It’s a will, and it begins with the leadership on your team.”
In the first full month of the year, the Mystics’ offseason commitment to defense showed up in their play. They had a 91.2 defensive rating, which ranked 2nd-best in the league behind the Las Vegas Aces. They also forced the most turnovers in the W and held teams to 41.4% shooting. But DC faltered defensively in July. They ranked dead last in defensive rating with a ghastly 107.5 rating, 6.5 points worse than anybody else in the WNBA.
Lately, the Mystics have gotten back to playing hard, focused defense. Their defensive rating is back to a respectable 98.7 for the month of August. They locked down the Fever for 69 points and the Seattle Storm for 59 points in the last four games. DC has also done a tremendous job on the defensive glass. This month, they have the best rebounding percentage in the league and, in turn, have allowed the least amount of second chance points.
When I asked Head Coach Mike Thibault about the team’s defense growth, he stressed that they have done a better job of paying attention to details. He also said that the team is “just working hard [and]they have made a commitment to each other like [they]did last year.” Shey Peddy, who has also coached this team in 2019, echoed Thibault about the team locking in on defense.
“We know to get to the next level and get back to the finals and win the championship, it’s gotta be our defense,” said Peddy. “I think everyone just mentally has focused in. They’re just really aware of the concepts and schemes that the coaches are putting and executing on the court.”
Developing a defensive identity
Despite the renewed focus, the stats show that the Mystics’ defense is still rather pedestrian. They rank 7th in defensive rating for the entire year and 10th in opponent effective field goal percentage. However, the team’s recent defensive efforts should give DC fans hope heading to the playoffs. Honestly, the Mystics don’t need a great defense to win when their offense is scoring essentially at will. But more importantly, Washington has developed a defensive identity based on ball pressure and switching over the last few weeks.
As we saw with Atkins’s block on McCall above, the Mystics have opted for the simplest of defensive strategies and switch on almost every screen. They have great personnel for this as everyone on the starting unit (especially with Aerial Power in for the injured Toliver) has the length, speed, and strength to at least bother most players. While switching is simple schematically, the system requires a ton of movement and communication as Ariel Atkins explained to me.
“I think [we just have to]keep it moving. Find a way to make sure we communicate because I think that’s a big thing for us defensively,” said the 2018 All-Defense Second Team selection.
Washington’s defense also relies on ball pressure. Off switches, their bigs go right out to challenge ball handlers and force them into a decision. This can lead to wide open shots if the rest of the defense doesn’t react. On the flip side, it can also lead to steals when they communicate properly as they did here against Seattle.
When I asked Elena Delle Donne why the defense has improved lately, she pointed to the increased ball pressure and the trust the team has built to take chances.
“I think it’s just applying more ball pressure. Just knowing we have a lot of length but that we also have a lot of athleticism too. So trust that we can get up into people. Even if people go by us, just knowing we have help behind us,” said the presumptive MVP.
Ariel Atkins is really the lynchpin of this whole plan. She can guard pretty much everyone and seems to relish playing defense. She gets into bigs, annoys guards, and looks for steals or blocks in every situation. Atkins is a risk taker, but she is so fast and smart that it usually works out like it did on this steal on Seimone Augustus.
Over the last few weeks, Atkins has been taking chances and making plays while also remaining focused and disciplined. When she is at her best, the Mystics defense takes perfect shape. The rest of the team can play their assignments and key on what mismatches the switching has created. Then, they can cover up those gaps or get better matchups as Atkins harasses ball handlers. If they can maintain this level of defensive activity and communication, other teams simply won’t be able to keep up with DC’s offense.
Still need improvement
While Washington has gotten better on defense lately, the Mystics still need to develop on that end. Coach T agreed that the defense has improved, but, like all coaches, he stressed that they are still not where they need to be.
“That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily have the answer,” said the winningest coach in league history. “Part of it is practice, part of it is film watching, part of it is just discipline and little things. Can you discipline yourself as an individual to do the things you need to do? Not go for pump fakes, make sure you block out every time. All those things are part of self-discipline that becomes part of team discipline.”
Again, every coach says things like this. But Thibault’s system relies so heavily on movement, communication, and aggression that falling for a pump fake or getting sucked into a play makes it fail completely. Discipline will be crucial for DC heading into the playoffs. But it’s the type of discipline that allows Atkins, Powers, Cloud, and Co. to keep taking chances. The Mystics need to do the little things right, so they can play their style. Atkins agreed with her coach that the team isn’t where it needs to be defensively. But she warned the league to watch out when Washington does get there.
“We are continuously getting better is the thing. You have two steps forward, one step back. We’re trying to get two steps forward, then another step forward instead taking that one step back,” said Atkins. “So [it’s] just trying to get better defensively every day. Once we figure it out, it’ll be scary.”
The Mystics take on the Chicago Sky tonight at 8 pm in the Windy City. Then, they come back home to play the Liberty on Sunday. On Tuesday, Washington faces Los Angeles in a huge match-up with the playoffs around the corner.