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Mystics are inching back to full strength — and they have their sights set on contention

Natasha Cloud and the Mystics are back in action Sunday with the opener of a tough three-game road trip. (Will Newton for The Washington Post)
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Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault gathered his team at the end of Friday’s practice at Entertainment and Sports Arena and had one final message: “Let’s get this thing started,” he told the largest group of players to participate at practice in months.

After the Tokyo Olympics paused the WNBA season, the Mystics return to the court Sunday to play their first game in five weeks. Washington (8-10) survived the season’s first half to sit in the league’s final playoff spot despite such an injury-plagued stretch that at one point the Mystics played a game with just six players. Washington enters the second half with renewed spirit and a roster that more closely resembles what Thibault envisioned — one that plans to compete for a championship in September.

“It’s 0-0,” guard Natasha Cloud said. “... The first half, I think a lot of people are counting us out. But we haven’t been healthy; we haven’t had a full squad. We made changes to our team. We’ve had players come in that only had about a month or so to play with us, that were just kind of thrown into things.”

Things won’t be easy coming out of the gate: The Mystics open on the road with games Sunday and Tuesday in Las Vegas against the second-place Aces (15-6) and one Thursday in Phoenix against Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and the Mercury (9-10). Washington played the fewest games in the league during the first half, so it has time to make up ground. But the schedule also features 10 of 14 games against teams currently in playoff position.

The Mystics are closer to full strength but not all the way there. Elena Delle Donne (back) will not travel on the road trip despite having been cleared for full contact and participating in practice during the break. Washington’s medical staff has managed her workload during these sessions, in which she has participated in five-on-five competition for the first time since the end of the 2019 season, with the hope that the two-time MVP will be ready to play when the team returns home. Her first game back could be against the WNBA-leading Seattle Storm (16-5) on Aug. 22.

Elena Delle Donne, with some help from Russell Westbrook, is nearing her Mystics return

Myisha Hines-Allen (knee), on the other hand, is back and set to start Sunday. Fellow forward Erica McCall (knee) has been practicing with a bulky brace after undergoing surgery and was cleared to play Saturday. She hasn’t played since June 13.

The Mystics are still waiting on 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman to make a decision on whether she will join the team this season after focusing on overseas commitments during the first half. Guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, a member of the championship team who played on a pair of seven-day contracts last month, is slated to sign for the rest of the season Tuesday.

The Mystics still can’t completely shake the injury bug, though. Guard Shavonte Zellous sprained an ankle early this week and is out Sunday.

“It is kind of crazy, but it’s also great to have a full team,” said center Tina Charles, who is fresh off her gold medal-winning trip to Tokyo. “Especially for us and at this point of the season, [it helps] having a couple more games than in the first half of the season so we can make up some L’s that we took. It first starts with ourselves and who we want to reflect and what we want to be out there … not worrying about the other teams or the standings. Just being intentional with the things that Coach T needs from us.”

There’s a feeling that the cavalry has arrived after Charles was forced to carry a tremendous load in the first half. The 2012 MVP came to Washington for a chance to play for a title on a team stacked with talent, but she has been forced to be the No. 1 option because of injuries. She responded by leading the league at 26.3 points per game, which would be a WNBA single-season record if it holds, and ranking second in rebounding at 10 per game. Charles, 32, has put forth an MVP-worthy effort with the league’s highest usage rate (32.9 percent).

The Mystics’ championship window remains open; still on the roster are Delle Donne, Charles, first-time Olympian Ariel Atkins, 2020 all-WNBA second-team selection Hines-Allen, defensive stalwart Cloud and guard Leilani Mitchell, who is coming off another run with the Australian Olympic team. They intend to show their true selves during this sprint to the postseason.

“This is a new season in many ways,” Thibault said. “A lot of things that we had hoped would be in place at the start were not here at the start. We have five people here that never went through training camp with us. The ability to have a feel for each other wasn’t there at the start of the season. It’s just a different feel.”

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