Six weeks ago, the Washington Mystics faced the closest thing to a crisis they experienced in this joyous 2019 title season. Kristi Toliver, the cool veteran point guard of their high-powered attack, was out with a right knee injury. Wing Aerial Powers, a breakout performer soaking up minutes in Toliver’s absence, reinjured her left glute. With the playoffs on the horizon, Washington had only three healthy rotation players to spread across three perimeter positions: Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, and the inexperienced Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
Before an Aug. 31 game in Dallas, coach Mike Thibault chose an unconventional method to solve his dilemma. Instead of using perimeter players to fill the vacant perimeter minutes, he put big Emma Meesseman in the starting lineup, creating a jumbo frontcourt with MVP Elena Delle Donne and starting center LaToya Sanders.
As it turns out, that moment ended up saving the Mystics’ season. Without Emma Meesseman, the Mystics are not WNBA champions.
First, Washington advanced past the formidable Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA semifinals in four games because Meesseman cracked every defensive plan the Aces tried. She followed up a 27-point Game 1 by pouring in 30 points in Game 2, helping Washington overcome Vegas’ tenacious defense on Delle Donne and relentless pace-pushing the other way. She helped her team close out the series in Game 4 by scoring 22 points and knocking down several clutch shots late.
Then, when the chips were down in a winner-take-all Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, Meesseman rallied the Mystics from a seven-point deficit the old-fashioned way: by going one-on-one against whoever checked her and scoring at will. She finished with 22 points on 13 shots, with 16 of those points coming after she checked in for the final time midway through the third quarter. She was the series MVP and absolutely deserved the honor.
Contrary to her work against Las Vegas (more on that below), Meesseman’s success against Connecticut wasn’t all that subtle. In the Mystics’ Game 3 victory, she pick-and-popped Sun center Jonquel Jones to death, taking advantage of her lack of foot speed. Nothing terribly elaborate about that.
In Game 5, she pulled the Mystics over the finish line in a way anyone can understand: by patiently roasting whoever checked her one-on-one. Most impressively, she used a series of pirouettes to kiss this shot off the glass against Connecticut’s Morgan Tuck.
Meesseman is a unique player in a unique situation. A slick-shooting one-time All-Star and featured Mystics building block, she had to adjust her game to accommodate Delle Donne, a superstar that plays her position. As the Mystics fine-tuned their record-breaking system around their new franchise player, Meesseman sat out the 2018 WNBA season after six years of playing nearly non-stop basketball that included helping her native Belgium overachieve in critical international tournaments. Without her, Sanders’ defensive prowess and blue-collar offensive game became the a perfect compliments to Delle Donne’s electric scoring.
Reintegrating Meesseman has been a minor nuisance all year. Delle Donne is the star and Sanders’ skill set is too important to sit for long stretches, yet it’s a waste of Meesseman’s talent to contain her in a 20-minute bench role. Thibault occasionally used the jumbo lineup featuring all three bigs within games this year, if only to squeeze in more Meesseman minutes. But with his perimeter rotation threatened by injury, Thibault took the chance to get Meesseman on the floor more by starting her.
That decision was especially crucial against Las Vegas. During the series, the Aces focused their attention on slowing Delle Donne and anticipating the Mystics’ dynamic ball movement. They toggled between man-to-man, zone, and mixtures of the two, and even started switching all screens in Game 2. Off-ball defenders aggressively helped in the lane, hoping to beat the Mystics to the extra pass they love. The idea was to disrupt the Mystics’ flow by confusing them.
Yet that didn’t actually happened, and Meesseman was the reason. No matter what they did, the Aces couldn’t account for her. None of their bigs were able to step out and contest her sweet jump shot.
When they tried to rush out to contain that stroke, Meesseman drove around them. Watch how she attacked at the exact moment A’ja Wilson lunges her left leg out, which set up a Sanders jumper.
Meesseman’s skill set challenged the Aces, but her off-ball movement really confounded them. She was always moving into open space, no matter where it was or when it actually presented itself. Because she never stood still, it was impossible to get a beeline on what she planned to do. As soon as her defender turned their head to account for another threat, she cut away from them for layups or open threes.
That movement gave her a leg up even if the initial cut didn’t bear fruit. Without actually sprinting, she ran the Aces ragged.
Meesseman’s the kind of player that succeeds in what’s known as a “wicked” learning environment, a term initially coined by economist Robin Hogarth in his 2001 book Educating Intuition. In it, Hogarth suggested that wicked learning environments are “characterized by faulty feedback that can be misleading as a result of, among other things, delays, random disturbances, absence, and other confounding factors.” This is in contrast to “kind” environments, where feedback is clear enough for people to easily adjust their behavior.
In psychological terms, the Aces and Sun used defensive strategy designed to create a “wicked” learning environment. By mixing up defensive coverages, packing the lane, and pre-rotating to anticipate the Mystics’ ball movement, the Aces and Sun, in their own specific way, created random disturbances that they hope leads to misleading feedback. This approach operates on the sensible theory that the Mystics players, like most high-level pros, succeed because they’ve mastered kind feedback loops. They’ve been drilled so precisely on common in-game situations that the Aces and Sun couldn’t just defend one way and hope they can out-execute them.
That’s why Meesseman was proved to be a wrench in their plans. She does not operate in common patterns that can be thrown off. Instead, she succeeds by adapting a simple philosophy — keep the ball and herself moving into open space, no matter where — to any situation — unless she realizes the only solution is to go one-on-one.
It’s how she was able to seamlessly adjust her screen angle to stop Kayla McBride from going under, then dart into open space when Wilson stepped up to contain the ball.
It’s how she intuitively understood that a simple step to the left was all that was needed to get Wilson to open up a driving lane, given the Aces’ obvious goal of swarming Delle Donne in the post.
It was enough to understand exactly how to account for the Aces’ late adjustment in Game 2 to switch every screen. This is the one strategy I was been waiting to see against the Mystics all season. If done right, it could have baited the Mystics into going one-on-one to attack mismatches instead of continuing to move the ball side to side.
But even that didn’t work, largely because Meesseman found ways to catch the Aces off-balanced mid-switch. On this play, she circled behind Delle Donne, all to set up a spin move back to the middle when Dearica Hamby jumped out to switch.
Later on, Meesseman delivered the ultimate off-ball checkmate sequence to the switch-everything strategy. After setting an off-ball flare screen to get the slower Liz Cambage onto her, Meesseman tried driving to the hoop.
Cambage held up nicely, forcing Meesseman to kick the ball out to Cloud in the corner. Cloud’s drive was cut off, but Meesseman noticed that Cambage stayed in the paint instead of following her back out to the perimeter. As Cloud recycled the offense, Meesseman pointed to Delle Donne to cut through, but not directly to the hoop.
Why? Because Meesseman realized that if the Aces were sticking to their switch-everything scheme, it’d be Delle Donne’s defender in Hamby, and not Cambage, that would be tasked with closing out to the perimeter. If Delle Donne cut straight to the hoop, the Aces would just have Cambage pick her up. Instead, Delle Donne cut right in front of Hamby, and that gave Meesseman this clean look for three.
In essence, Meesseman had Delle Donne set a screen not on Cambage, the defender currently guarding her, but on Hamby, the player that was going to guard her after the anticipated switch. She used her intuition to snuff out the Aces’ attempt to confuse her. That’s thriving in a wicked environment.
So, too, was the way she took Connecticut’s tough, physical Game 5 defense and went straight at them for the kill. In contrast to the Aces, Connecticut’s defensive strategy was more physical than elaborate. The Sun had their own ace in the hole in Courtney Williams, who kept mucking up Washington’s spacing by helping off Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins.
Ultimately, the best solution to Connecticut’s off-ball work was to give the ball to Meesseman and let her take her defender one-on-one. When push came to shove, not even Jones could move her feet to deal with Meesseman attacking off the dribble.
PLAYOFF EMMA CAN'T BE TAMED pic.twitter.com/4rsnTD0Wa9— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) October 11, 2019
️ ️ PLAYOFF EMMA BE TAMED pic.twitter.com/rzVtvjbTt8— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) October 11, 2019
Without Meesseman’s work in the semifinals, the Mystics’ well-oiled offensive machine would be paralyzed by indecision from the Aces’ clever defensive tricks. Without her work in the Finals, the Sun’s success in forcing Washington into one-on-one basketball would’ve resulted in defeat. Two different series, two very different ways of succeeding. She really was the missing element in putting Washington over the top.
Ultimately, she and the Mystics gave the wicked Aces and Sun a taste of their own medicine.