Elena Delle Donne
Elena Delle Donne Credit: Kelyn Soong

Being the overwhelming WNBA title favorites doesn’t feel like pressure to Washington Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver. She has been a key part of the historically successful team this year, and throughout the season, the players have only added fuel to any talk of them winning the title.

“If you want to call it pressure, it can be pressure,” Toliver says. “I don’t think we feel pressure. This has been a very good league this year, and there are a lot of teams that could win it, but for us, it’s ours. It’s ours to lose.”

During the preseason, some oddsmakers and WNBA general managers picked the Las Vegas Aces, led by All-Star center Liz Cambage, as most likely to win the title next month. The Mystics, who got swept by the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals last year, and Los Angeles Sparks tied for third in the general manager survey.

But with a leading MVP candidate in Elena Delle Donne, the return of Emma Meesseman,and a cohesive unit of players in coach Mike Thibault‘s high-tempo offensive, the Mystics finished the regular season with a WNBA-leading 26-8 record and the No. 1 seed in the WNBA playoffs. The team also set several league records, including the most three-point field goals made per game (9.3), the best free-throw percentage (87.5 percent), and the most assists per game (21.8).

The team will play Game 1 of the best-of-five semifinal series against the Aces on Tuesday night at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.

“I think pressure can make or break teams and I knew that this team was ready for the pressure,” says Delle Donne, who became the first WNBA player to join the 50-40-90 club, shooting 51.5 percent from the field, 43 percent from the three-point line, and 97.4 percent from the free-throw line. “And we were ready to get better every single day and handle that. To be able to play through that type of pressure in the regular season only gets you more ready for playoffs, so I was fine with taking that role [of being the favorites].”

From the first day, Thibault saw a group of players that did the “little things” to improve since last season’s deflating exit. The team started the motto, “run it back,” during training camp in its new home court in Ward 8.

“Everybody sees all the big things, but did you read your scouting report? Did you do the things that you need to do? Don’t be the one that lets your teammates down,” he says. “I think that’s a big part of it. And I think, we’re using as a quote in our scouting report for the playoffs a Billie Jean King quote that says, “pressure is a privilege,” and I think that’s a really big statement because you want to be in this situation. Embrace it.”

Natasha Cloud, one of the team’s leaders, adds that the team has discussed that mentality with their sports psychologist, Stu Singer, and that the pressure has been driven internally from the team.

“We weren’t necessarily the favorite until everyone jumped on the bandwagon seeing us play throughout the season,” she laughs. “So we put that pressure on ourselves, and I say that with no cockiness, it’s just confidence in our team, in our abilities on this team. So that pressure is welcome by every single one of us on this team.”

Part of the on-court success also comes from the fact that the players appear to like hanging out with each other. The word “fun” came up regularly when reporters asked questions about team chemistry. “Even on off days, I miss it,” Delle Donne says. “I want to come back and see everybody and get back into the groove, so that’s when you know you got a good group.”

Cloud acted like Delle Donne’s biggest cheerleader during the season, and Thibault planned several outings for the players, including a trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York.

“This team, the chemistry we have, the friendships we have off the court, translates and correlates on the court,” Cloud says. “I think that’s why you see us being so unselfish and how much chemistry we do have on the court because we genuinely do love each other off the court. And when you just have good vibes every day coming into a locker room, it makes your job fun.”

Cloud and fellow guard Ariel Atkins recently made the WNBA’s all-defensive second team. While the Mystics are best known for their relentless offense, which averaged a league-leading 89.3 points per game, Thibualt believes the defense has often won games for the team. He calls it a “shame” that forward-center LaToya Sanders did not make the all-defensive team, which is selected by WNBA head coaches and broken up by position.

“I think if they had just done the 10 best defensive players, you would have LaToya in there,” Thibualt says.

Cloud has even stronger words for what she feels has been blatant disrespect from the league. She made the all-defensive team for the first time in her career this year.

“It’s frustrating,” she says. “I was left off last year and kinda snubbed again this year. I think of myself as one of the best defenders, and also Toya got snubbed as well. It’s a constant snub of us here in D.C. … It’s a big slap in my face. So playoffs I’m in a different beast mode.”

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