Kristi Toliver curled around an Emma Meesseman screen and threw a no-look touch pass to the left wing for an assist to teammate LaToya Sanders. That was Aug. 8 as the Washington Mystics, the WNBA’s best team, were on their way to closing out a win over the Indiana Fever. But on that play, a potentially season-altering play occurred and nobody noticed.
Toliver banged knees with Fever forward Stephanie Muvunga on a collision so routine that everyone kept moving, including Toliver, who closed out the remainder of the game. The next day, Toliver was ruled out with a knee contusion, and she has missed six games since.
On Sunday, the Mystics said Toliver might not be back until the playoffs.
Two-and-a-half weeks after that initial contact took place, Toliver’s outlook is much worse than anticipated. During the Mystics’ win against the Liberty on Sunday, she wore an elaborate knee brace on the sidelines, and she was seen using crutches in the locker room after the game. Head coach Mike Thibault called the injury a bone bruise, saying she’s on a “long-term” plan for recovery.
Mystics fans can only cringe upon hearing those two words — “bone bruise” — once again. That same injury may have cost them a championship last season when the team’s best player, Elena Delle Donne, suffered a bone bruise to her left knee during Game 1 of last season’s semifinals. The Mystics were later swept in the finals by the Seattle Storm.
“The diagnosis hasn’t changed, it’s just taking [Toliver] longer to get better,” Thibault said. “It’s the same kind of injury that Elena had, but it’s pretty deep.”
Thibault confirmed that Toliver hasn’t suffered any setbacks since the original injury.
Delle Donne’s recovery was much different from what Toliver’s will be. Delle Donne came back to play just five days after her injury in 2018 through a myriad of intense rehab methods that included a hyperbaric chamber, shock wave therapy, and walking in an Alter G. Toliver will have had a full month to get better between the day she suffered the injury and the start of the postseason. But the injury is still reason to worry.
“I told [Toliver] collagen powder helped with some of the bone achiness,” Delle Donne said after Sunday’s game. “But it’s brutal. I still have a lot of knee pain to this day from it. Bone bruises are really hard. They do not heal quickly. I feel for her. It’s a pain in the butt.”
Toliver, a three-time All-Star, is one of the Mystics’ best players. She’s the team’s second-leading scorer with 13 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field, and 36 percent from three-point range. She’s a veteran, and the lone Mystic with a championship ring. She’ll be needed in the playoffs, but also sorely missed now as D.C. competes neck-and-neck with the Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces for one of the two best records in the league. The third-best team would have to play a single-elimination playoff game.
In the six games Toliver has been sidelined, the Mystics have faired well, winning five of six, and four games by 23 points or more. Just two of those wins came over playoff teams, however. Tuesday night’s game at home against Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks will be a huge test of what the Mystics’ fate might be if Toliver isn’t back on time.