Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud briefly halted practice Friday afternoon to admonish her teammates.
The sternly worded message from the Mystics’ vocal leader followed a lackadaisical stretch of defense during five-on-five drills, with an ailing Elena Delle Donne watching from the bench and Washington preparing to face the Las Vegas Aces on Saturday night at Entertainment and Sports Arena in a showdown for first place in the WNBA.
“This team needs to be tougher,” Cloud said after a closed-door team meeting with Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault. “We are a championship team. What I keep saying to everyone is, ‘It’s championship or bust this year.’ That’s the team that we have, but, you know, Elena goes down and we lose two by 20 and more, and that’s not okay.”
Delle Donne, according to Thibault, will be a game-time decision while she undergoes additional testing in the league’s concussion protocol. The six-time all-star forward took a shoulder to the face on the first play of Sunday’s road game against the Los Angeles Sparks. She departed with a broken nose and did not return, and the Mystics lost, 98-81.
Delle Donne leads the Mystics in scoring (15.8 points per game) and rebounding (8.2) and is tied for third in assists (2.3). The 2014 WNBA MVP was announced Thursday as a team captain for the All-Star Game as the leading vote-getter in fan balloting.
Reinforcements have arrived, however. Forward Emma Meesseman returned to practice Thursday after missing 11 games while with the Belgian national team at the EuroBasket championship.
“I’ve got a good memory, I think,” Meesseman said after her first full practice with Washington in five weeks. “I’ve been playing here for a couple years, so it’s not that new to me. I don’t feel like I’ve been gone for a month. It’s still the same people, and I’m still the same person.”
The original plan was to bring Meesseman off the bench in her first handful of games back. If, however, Delle Donne is unavailable to play against the Aces (10-5), who have the best record in the league, then Meesseman may be in line to start Saturday night.
“Obviously she’s only had two days,” Thibault said of Meesseman, a 2015 all-star who sat out the 2018 WNBA season to rest as well as focus on her national team responsibilities. “Yesterday was kind of learn the plays again and shoot, and today was get back into live contact, but she’s such a good player she fits right back in.”
The addition of Meesseman comes with the Mystics trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak this season and playing their second game against Las Vegas in eight days.
The teams most recently met July 5 in Las Vegas in a game suspended at halftime, with the Mystics ahead, 51-36, because of an earthquake in Southern California that reverberated into parts of Nevada.
No date has been determined for the continuation of that game, but a victory Saturday night would ensure the Mystics the head-to-head tiebreaker in the three-game regular season series. Washington won the first meeting against the Aces, 95-72, on June 20 at Mandalay Bay Events Center behind 29 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks from Delle Donne, who did not speak with reporters Friday.
“You’ve got to be able to play without her,” Cloud said. “Elena is our best player. I love her. She’s a great leader for us, but we’ve got to be in the mind-set that she’s not playing because we have been feeling sorry for ourselves that she’s not playing.
“Everyone knows that’s 18 to 20 points that’s missing. We’ve got Emma back now, but myself included, I need to step up. I’ve been shooting the ball extremely poorly, so getting it out of my head and just being able to step up for my teammate when she is hurt.”