Lost in talks about the star-studded Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm as the WNBA’s teams to beat were the Washington Mystics, a two-headed beast with a lethal supporting cast that’s proven it can hang with the best in the league. Now, even despite a bone bruise in Game 3 of the semifinals to their star, Elena Delle Donne, they’re ready for the 2018 WNBA Finals.
D.C.’s run to the No. 3 playoff seed was tough to predict. One of its three All-Stars, Emma Meesseman, took the season off to prepare for the FIBA World Cup. But Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver along with a fleet of complementary talent has taken Washington to the franchise’s first trip to the Finals. (D.C. was the only team in the league yet to make it.)
The Mystics success starts and ends with Elena Delle Donne
Trading for Delle Donne in 2017 was a monumental moment in Washington’s franchise history. Finally, the Mystics acquired one of the best players in the league in her prime.
A 6’5 do-it-all, Delle Donne is the future and the now of the WNBA. An elite athlete, she can play big, small and everything between. She’s a lights-out 41 percent shooter from three, a historically good 93 percent career free throw shooter, grabs seven boards per game and despite seeing the ball in her hands so often, turns it over less than once a night.
19 PTS, 12 REB, 4 AST for @De11eDonne!— WNBA (@WNBA) August 24, 2018
Watch her best plays from the @WashMystics win against LA to advance to the best-of-5 Semifinals against Atlanta on Sunday! #WNBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/xuQtYSes5G
Toliver called her “The One,” after the the team crushed the Sparks, 96-64 in a single-elimination game. Delle Donne scored 19 points with 12 rebounds as the Mystics crushed the Sparks, 96-64.
“When you play against a player like Elena,” Sparks head coach Brian Agler said, “you’ve got to do a great job with whoever’s matched up against her.
“At the same time, because they’re going to put her in different actions, it’s going to take multiple people to be a part of that. Our focus went there a lot and that meant we had to leave other people open and they found them.”
That’s what makes Washington so dangerous.
The Mystics are way more than just Elena Delle Donne
The hierarchy in the Mystics lineup has a clear 1a and 1b with Delle Donne and Toliver, one of the best shooters on Earth. You can fill a number of players in for the next slot.
“It’s like the Rugrats are out here doing their thing,” former MVP Ogwumike said, “all these youngsters out here. We’re watching evolution right?”
The Mystics start a pair of guard/forwards who can go off well into double figures on any given night. Natasha Cloud, a 26-year-old in the running for Most Improved Player of the year serves as the team’s point guard who can dish on the break and score from range.
Rookie Ariel Atkins, a 5’11, 22-year-old who wasn’t even among the 12 players in attendance at the draft, is a wall who mimics Cloud’s skills and then some.
With Delle Donne’s talents playing decoy and Agler opting to put additional pressure on Washington’s star, the Sparks lost at the hand of the Mystics supporting role players. Atkins and Cloud combined for 25 points on 5-of-8 shooting from three-point range.
The Rugrats, as Ogumwike called them, can’t be left alone.
LaToya Sanders makes this team go, too
Sanders missed almost the entire 2016 season to play in the Olympics and all of the 2017 season surgery for chronic heel pain and plantar fasciitis, but in 2018 she’s not only become a full-time starter, but a heaven-sent dream for Delle Donne.
“LaToya makes my life so easy,” Delle Donne said of her 6’3 teammate. “She does it all. Always has to defend the best big, she’s all over the boards, she’s so efficient on offense.
“Players like [me and Toliver] get high touches and get to shoot a lot where LaToya doesn’t, but when gets them, she knocks them down. She’s been so big for us this entire season.”
Sanders can hold down the post, guard like-sized bigs and play a simple clean-up role on offense. She doesn’t ask for the ball much and doesn’t have to. The 50 percent shooter strokes mid-range shots if they’re open, otherwise she’s spending her time fighting for position down low.
She’s the clean-up piece every team needs and the reason the Mystics have survived without Meesseman.
“They’ve really figured out their team,” Ogwumike said. “They’ve figured out their players. They’re not just playing well, they put people in certain positions. They have the chemistry and they know what people are good at and what they like to do. That makes it tough. They’re playing stress-free it seems like.”
And that’s how the Mystics have carried themselves with each piece of the puzzle playing alongside her complement.
Washington doesn’t have as many stars as Minnesota or Seattle, but it has the right pieces on the court. In a WNBA season highlighted by parity across the board, the Mystics show what makes their team unique.