While the top seeds in the WNBA playoffs await this weekend's results to know their first-round opponent, the Washington Mystics are already locked into their matchup.
The Mystics will play the Seattle Storm in a rematch of the 2018 WNBA Finals as they begin their chase for a championship. The only question that remains on their playoff fate will be if the best-of-three series begins in Seattle or D.C.
Playing the Indiana Fever twice in the final weekend goes a long way in determining that outcome. Having sights purely set on Seattle isn't how the Mystics are approaching this week.
But by simply playing their opponent, there's a lot they can do to prepare for a team who has won two of the last four WNBA titles.
"I mean, it's in the back of your mind because you gotta have your staff start doing preparation," head coach Mike Thibault said. "But it's interesting, so in practicing for this weekend, there are some things that both teams do, Seattle and Indiana, defensively that will serve as well because ironically, the defense that Seattle plays a lot of it is still from [Gary] Kloppenburg when he was there, and he's now the defensive coach in Indiana. So we'll see some similar things and so that's probably helpful in our preparation too."
Kloppenburg was on the bench for both of the Storm's titles in 2018 and 2020. He actually stepped into the head coaching role for that 2020 bubble season as then-head coach Dan Hughes had to miss the year due to was recovery from cancer procedures.
His imprint remains on Seattle according to Thibault. The disruptive nature of his schemes to deny easy paths into the paint is seen across both teams.
It's not just getting more accustomed to the defense. There are plenty of internal points of emphasis Washington wants to work on.
"I think that we are, unfortunately, still working on some things that have taken a little longer than you hope," Thibault said. "Particularly offensively with people in and out of the lineup. I think our team has a better understanding this last two weeks of who we are and what works best for us."
This is the first season under the new playoff format. Every team now plays in each round, unlike the previous edition that had higher seeds earning byes. The top four teams each earn the homecourt advantage for that three-game series (a 2-1 format). Each round after the first round is the traditional five-game series (2-2-1).
A tiebreaker against the Storm and a game separate Mystics from that homecourt. Washington lost two of their three games head-to-head this season with a late two-game back-to-back being the difference. There's only one path for Washington to jump up to fourth place and that's winning both games while Seattle loses their two against the Minnesota Lynx and Las Vegas Aces.
Any other scenario and the Storm have homecourt advantage where the first two games will be at Climate Pledge Arena and a potential winner-take-all Game 3 being at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast.
Expanding to 12
All season the Mystics have been limited to the league-minimum 11 players because of the salary cap. But on Wednesday, the sliver of cap space remaining was opened up to sign a player on a minimum pro-rated contract. That afforded Washington the opportunity to bring 2020 first-round pick Jaz Jones out of Louisville. Thibault called the move "insurance" at the guard position.
This will be Jones' third team in three seasons after she was selected by New York. She played seven games earlier this season for the Connecticut Sun and saw 44 minutes of play.