The Washington Mystics are one win away from returning to the WNBA Finals for the second year in a row after a 103-91 victory over the Las Vegas Aces in Game 2 of the semifinals from the Entertainment and Sports Arena. The game came just a couple hours after Elena Delle Donne was handed her 2019 MVP trophy by new commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Similar to the first game of the series it was a high scoring affair that saw arguably the two best teams in the WNBA trading heavyweight punches.
Even though Devin Booker might not like it in pickup games, it is almost common sense to double the best player on the floor and make somebody else beat you. Admittedly, the 30-year old has grown from her first MVP honors in 2015 with the Chicago Sky to understand that team success always trumps individual success. Delle Donne demonstrated that to the fullest extent on Thursday.
“I feel like when I first got it, my eyes were wide open and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing ever!,’” Delle Donne said when accepting the MVP trophy pregame. “Not realizing that making my teammates better and trying to win championships is so much more than this. Somehow, when you do that, you play as a great team and you make everyone else around you better, it makes your job easier and somehow this trophy comes along with it sometimes.”
With the constant traps, switches, and double teams, Delle Donne struggled offensively relative to her usual lethal self. The MVP had 14 points on just 5-for-15 shooting from the field. The 97.4 percent free-throw shooter even missed one from the charity stripe, which she hasn’t done since August 8 (13 games ago). That did not concern head coach Mike Thibault at all because at the end of the day Delle Donne put first things first and that is winning no matter how well you do or do not play.
“Everything I do is just trying to be focused in the present moment and enjoying that because that’s truly all you can do,” Delle Donne said. “This honor is phenomenal, and I’m super humbled by it and proud, but next step is the game. We have to take everything one game at a time and one moment at a time. Our team, we love each other, so we want to enjoy every step of the way. This is one of those steps, but there’s so much more to accomplish and we all know that and have a focus for that. Just unfinished business.”
Thibault has shortened his rotation, which is not to be unexpected in the playoffs, especially in a 40-minute game. Only seven players played more than four minutes, but each of those players made a significant impact on the game. Ariel Atkins only played 15 minutes but she played hard and scrappy defense to take valuable seconds off the Aces’ shot clock every possession. Aerial Powers chipped in 10 points off the bench in just 16 minutes, while Kristi Toliver also had 10 points and a game-high +21 rating including a dagger three-pointer.
Because of Toliver’s limited mobility, as she continues to recover from a right knee contusion and slight MCL strain, Natasha Cloud has been forced into a primary point guard role for essentially the first time in her career. You would not be able to tell by the way she played on Thursday dropping off 11 assists, tying a career-high, to go along with an easy 18 points. Center LaToya Sanders who everyone in the locker room agrees is the glue that holds the Mystics together had an impressive game on both ends of the court. Sure, Liz Cambage had 23 points, but it could have been more without Sanders’ effort. More impressively, Sanders was giving it right back to Cambage on the other end of the court as she drained jumper after jumper to accumulate 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
“I just take what the defense gives me,” Sanders humbly put. “Like I keep telling everybody, my job is probably the easiest on the team because when they are doubling Elena [Delle Donne] and Emma [Meesseman], my job is basically to hit wide open shots and layups. I’m pretty sure I can do those two things. I just take what the defense gives me. Defensively, [Liz] Cambage is a talent. She’s a big girl, so I just do what I can to just try to difficult for her. She’s going to hit a bucket here and there, but I just try to dish it out as much as I can get.”
Last and certainly not least, Emma Meesseman has been playing arguably her best basketball of her career in the first two games of this series. On Thursday, Meesseman tied a career-high with 30 points on 11-for-19 shooting including 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. Through two games, the Belgian star has cumulated 57 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in 67 minutes.
“I think back two years ago when we played Minnesota and she was dead tired at the end of the season and beat up and she couldn’t make a shot and she struggled,” Thibault recalled. “It’s part of the reason that she needed some time away from the game a little bit. She had played non-stop basketball for six years straight since she was 18-19 years old and that took a lot out of her. She’s been rejuvenated. I think her experience with her national team has upped her confidence because she is a go-to player for them and her teammates have kept telling her, ‘You’re a go-to player for us too. You can’t just have one or two, we need three or four to win a championship.’ She’s embraced that this last part of the season. She was aggressive and she was looking for the ball. There’s a whole different body language to her about this right now.”
Meesseman is playing a lot of minutes with Delle Donne to match Las Vegas’ size and she is benefitting from the open space the Aces are giving her to shoot, while they worry about the MVP.
“She draws a lot of poeple to her, like you can’t leave her alone,” Meesseman described playing with Delle Donne. “So that’s two less persons to worry about. She’s just one of the greatest people.”
Probably the most resounding aspect about this Mystics team is their camaraderie with one another off the court. They genuinely like and enjoy spending time with one another. For Delle Donne’s 30th birthday party, she had the entire team including the coaching staff on a yacht to celebrate. Not all teams, especially compared to their male counterparts in the NBA, can function like that. It’s just another reason why the 2019 Washington Mystics are special.
“This is probably one of the unique teams that I have played for in my WNBA career,” Sanders started. “Usually, you don’t see 12 or 13 of us get along on and off the court and support each other in our endeavors on and off the court. We just get along. There is none of that petty drama or jealously that you can sometimes get. We genuinely support each other and want the best for each other because we know at the end of the day, when one person wins a ring, we are all going to get a ring. It’s easy to play when everybody has that mindset.”