Mystics bring the noise, brace for playoff showdown with Storm

Photo for The Washington Post by Terrance Williams
Storm guard Sue Bird, one of the WNBA’s all-time greats, will square off one final time with Natasha Cloud in the best-of-three playoff series against the Mystics. Game 1 is Thursday in Seattle

SEATTLE – Natasha Cloud stood against a wall at the Seattle Storm’s practice facility Wednesday, operating a giant speaker that pumped in crowd noise. The Washington Mystics were trying to simulate as much as they could on the campus of Seattle Pacific University. The real thing comes Thursday, when the first-round WNBA playoff series starts at Climate Pledge Arena.

Above Cloud, flanking her left and right, were four giant banners commemorating past Seattle championships – 2004, 2010, 2018, 2020.

“I walked in their gym today and I saw four championship banners and I was on the losing end in the finals of two of those,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “One in Connecticut (2004) and one in Washington (2018). So it sits right there for me. And I know our veteran players remember well our playoff finals with them.

“So that knowledge is there and I think that players are aware of it.”

This series, a best-of-three affair, will include the first two games here by virtue of the Storm (22-14) holding the tiebreaker over the Mystics (22-14) for the No. 4 seed, winning two of the three regular season meetings.

The series is expected to be the most exciting of the opening round, a pair of perennial powers that appear evenly matched. There are storylines throughout.

For the Mystics, Elena Delle Donne is back in the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2019 title after back surgeries put her career in doubt. And Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history with 20 years in and the understanding that the end is closer than the beginning, gets a third crack at the Storm. Alysha Clark returns to Seattle, where she played nine seasons and was part of two of those titles.

For the Storm, the dominant story is Sue Bird, who is hoping to end her career on a high note. Tina Charles, on her third team in two years (including the Mystics), is looking for her first ring. And there’s Breanna Stewart, in the running for her second MVP award.

Climate Pledge Arena is expected to be packed and loud – so much so that Thibault felt the need to pump in the noise for Wednesday’s practice. Thibault said they’ll have to be clear with hand signals and be especially loud yelling out defensive coverages.

“These are the greatest environments to play in,” Delle Donne said. “I don’t care what noise it is, even if it’s boos. That drives me, at least, I hope it drives our team.

“This is what you dream of when you dream of playoff atmospheres. To come into someone’s home and be able to compete and play and hopefully come away with a win, two wins, is fun. I feel like everybody’s excited about it.”

The series matches two of the top defenses in the league. The Mystics led the league in fewest points allowed with 75.9; the Storm were No. 3 at 78.4. Washington is No. 2 in opponents field goal percentage (43.0) and Seattle is No. 4 (43.4). In defensive rating, the Mystics were No. 1 (96.0) and the Storm were No. 3 (97.4)

“Numbers don’t lie,” Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen said. “We’re the No. 1 team on the defensive end.”

Any offensive advantage is likely the key to advancing to the second round.

Seattle seems to have the edge there with Stewart, who is averaging 21. 8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 47.2% from the field.

“Make her work,” Thibault said of Stewart. “That’s when the whole thing all along is, make her shots tough. We know she’s going to get shots. We know she’s a great player. For most of the game when we play them, she and Elena guard each other a lot. So, it’s an unbelievable battle. And I would say in general . . . in some ways they cancel each other out a lot of times in the sense that their stats end up similar.”

If only Stewart was the Mystics’ only problem. The Storm attack also includes shooting guard Jewel Loyd, a four-time All-Star who is shooting 38.5% from three-point range. And Charles, the 2012 MVP, has been one of the best scorers and rebounders in league history.

Then there’s Bird, who may be the best point guard the league has ever seen and is in the midst of her final season. There will a huge wave of emotion as the crowd pushes for Bird to finish her remarkable career with a fifth WNBA championship.

The Mystics have been inconsistent offensively throughout the year, but have the firepower to score with anyone. They’re averaging 80.2 points (eighth in the league) and are shooting 43.9% (seventh in the league).

A boost from a deep bench and Clark finding her shooting touch would be a huge plus for the Mystics. Clark shot just 30.3% from behind the arc in 2022 after knocking threes down at a 52.2% clip in 2020. A return to Seattle to face close friends in a raucous environment could provide a jump-start.

“I’m definitely excited about it,” Clark said. “Obviously, I know the caliber of players and the caliber of the organization. So going into playoff time, you want to play against the best. We know what kind of series it’s going to be like. We’re going to have to be really locked in and focused. But I’m confident in the players that we have in this locker room and what we’re able to do. . . .

“As somebody who loves a challenge and loves to compete, I love that.”