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Down two guards, the Mystics survived by going big. Can that work in the playoffs?

Elena Delle Donne had 28 points and LaToya Sanders had 12 on Saturday in Dallas. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Kaela Davis couldn’t win Saturday night in Dallas.

She was surrounded everywhere she turned. On defense, the 6-foot-2 swingwoman for the Dallas Wings was tasked with wrangling 6-4 Emma Meesseman, the forward who feels just as comfortable backing her way to the basket for a layup as she does stepping behind the arc to swish a three-pointer — which she did four times in four attempts.

The other end of the court offered no relief. There Davis had to contend with Elena Delle Donne, the 6-5 forward who worked with Washington Mystics assistant coach Eric Thibault all offseason to get better at defending smaller players. Davis’s stats in the Mystics’ 91-85 win reflected nothing but strife: She had just two points, three rebounds and a minus-23 defensive rating.

Such is the struggle when Washington deploys its big lineup.

“There’s always a mismatch that we try to exploit,” Delle Donne said. “Not only that, but Emma’s a great shooter. She’s super efficient, so we’re able to spread the floor and kind of spread the defense out.”

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On Saturday in Dallas, in a win that set the franchise record for wins in a season and secured Washington (23-8) a bye into the semifinal round of the WNBA playoffs, the Mystics had little choice but to go big.

Starting guard Kristi Toliver (right knee bruise) missed her eighth consecutive game. Also out was her backup, Aerial Powers, who last week aggravated a left glute injury from earlier in the season. Toliver isn’t expected back before the playoffs begin later this month, and Powers won’t play in Washington’s game Tuesday against the playoff-ineligible Liberty in New York, though she could play in the Mystics’ final two games of the regular season this weekend.

“If we were playing a playoff game, [Powers] could probably play [Tuesday],” Washington Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said Monday. “But we’re not doing that.”

Down two high-scoring guards, the Mystics survived Saturday by going big. Washington usually starts just two bigs, but Saturday it started Meesseman, who has been coming off the bench, alongside Delle Donne, center LaToya Sanders, guard Ariel Atkins and point guard Natasha Cloud in a version of a big lineup that Washington has deployed in select moments throughout the season. A similar big lineup often includes playing Meesseman, Delle Donne and reserve forward Tianna Hawkins together in a trio of bigs who can shoot threes and wreak havoc on defenses.

Against Dallas, Mike Thibault employed the big lineup longer than he has all season. It showed a way forward for the Mystics should the team run into more injury problems at guard, where Washington is particularly thin because top draft pick Kiara Leslie is sitting out her rookie season to recover from knee surgery.

Delle Donne had 28 points Saturday, Meesseman had 19, and Sanders had 12. The Mystics shot 50.8 percent from the field and 45.5 percent on three-pointers, percentages that were even better through three quarters — 60.8 percent from the field and 47.6 percent from three — before a slapdash fourth quarter that revealed some of the lineup’s weaknesses.

More on that in a moment. For now, consider what it takes to make this big lineup work. Meesseman and Delle Donne are highly efficient shooters who could be plugged into just about any group and rake in points, but a truly successful big lineup that keeps its offensive efficiency and doesn’t lag on defense requires adjustments on Delle Donne’s part.

That’s why the Mystics have been fine-tuning this lineup all season.

“The main thing is getting a flow offensively because, if you’re Elena, you’re playing in a different spot on the floor for parts of it,” Mike Thibault said. “When she’s in her normal starting lineup, she can play a lot more in the middle third of the floor and she doesn’t play on the deep wings, whereas [Saturday], she did a little bit of both. That’s finding a comfort zone to get her the ball in the right spots with that lineup.”

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The big lineup also requires Delle Donne to be comfortable guarding smaller players such as Davis, the Wings’ swingwoman. Most players as tall as Delle Donne aren’t confident guarding smaller, faster players far out on the perimeter, but Delle Donne dedicated her offseason to learning how to do just that.

She spent hours each week watching film with Eric Thibault while she was rehabbing a left knee injury this winter, learning how to better anticipate the movement of those smaller players she would be defending. As a result, Delle Donne has improved her timing and learned to trust her movement on defense even more.

But as Saturday’s eight-point fourth quarter demonstrated, Mike Thibault must be selective in deploying the big lineup; it’s too dependent on mismatches. The Wings presented a perfect opportunity until they switched to a different lineup in the fourth quarter. With Powers out again Tuesday, Thibault said he hasn’t decided if the Mystics will go big against New York or if they will depend on reserve guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and go with a smaller, more traditional group of starters.

Walker-Kimbrough had 13 points off the bench Saturday and provides the added benefit of taking pressure off Cloud, the starting point guard who is playing through a host of nagging injuries.

The positive thing for Thibault is that moving forward, he probably won’t have to depend on playing the big lineup for large swaths of time. When Powers returns, as Thibault is hopeful she will this weekend, the big lineup can go back to being more of a special deployment unit.

“I think it’s nice to have a couple more weeks to work at it before we play in a playoff game, and it won’t be a staple for us as far as huge minutes, but it will be a lineup that we can go to for five minutes a half, maybe,” Thibault said. “That’s assuming we have everybody back healthy — we did it before we got into this situation, before Kristi got hurt. It should only be a shorter-time lineup, something we do when we think we can force the game to be different for our opponents.”

Read more on the Mystics:

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