Mike Thibault is used to his teams playing at this time of the year. The WNBA's all-time winningest head coach, Thibault is set to lead the Mystics into the postseason for the third straight year. It will be his 14th playoff appearance as a head coach in 17 total seasons.
Thibault has enjoyed success all over the basketball world, including during his days as an NBA assistant. He won two rings with the Lakers in the early 1980s just down the bench from Pat Riley.
But the one accomplishment that has eluded him is a WNBA championship. No one has gotten quite as close as he has without winning one.
Last year, the Mystics fell in the WNBA Finals to the Seattle Storm. That was Thibault's third Finals appearance and also his third loss. He has 336 career wins in the WNBA. Everyone else with at least 135 wins has a ring.
Thibault even has more playoff wins than any other coach. Yet still, no title.
"Well, it depends," Thibault said when asked to describe his playoff history. "I've been in the playoffs a lot and we've won. I've lost in the Finals three times. But there are a whole bunch of teams sitting at home when you get to the Finals, too."
Thibault's dichotomy of regular-season success and playoff frustration is fairly unique in the world of professional sports. He does have a peer in Don Nelson, the NBA's all-time winning coach who also does not have a title. But the winningest coaches in the NFL (Don Shula), MLB (Connie Mack) and NHL (Scotty Bowman) each won at least four championships.
Nelson also didn't get to the Finals as often as Thibault. In fact, no NBA coach has ever reached the Finals at least three times without winning it all.
That type of misfortune is only seen in the NFL where two coaches - Marv Levy and Dan Reeves - lost four times in the Super Bowl. If Thibault gets to the Finals and loses again this season, he could join that group.
Thibault said he looks back on the second time he was in the WNBA Finals as the one that got away. That was back in 2005 when his Connecticut Sun went 26-8 in the regular season, same as this year's Mystics, to tie the best record of his career.
In the Finals that year, All-Star Lindsay Whalen suffered a left leg injury in Game 1 that shifted the series in favor of the Sacramento Monarchs. It took Thibault 13 years to get back to the Finals last season.
Though the Mystics lost last year, Thibault believes they are on the right track.
"We lost in the Semifinals two years ago and we lost in the Finals last year. This year, we're back in the playoffs and in the Semifinals again," he said. "You just keep knocking at the door and hopefully your experience and your skill improvement makes the difference this time around. We're a better team than we were a year ago. That doesn't guarantee anything, but we are a better team."
The Mystics are also searching for their first title as a franchise. And Elena Delle Donne, who could win her second WNBA MVP award this season, is no stranger to getting close herself. After last year, she is 0-for-2 in the WNBA Finals.
The Mystics' mantra this season has been 'run it back.' But it could also be framed as unfinished business.
"He loves [the game]," Delle Donne said of Thibault. "He is just passionate about it, so to bring him something he's never earned, since I feel like he's done literally everything else under the sun, would be really cool for this team."
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