In many ways, the rematch of the 2018 WNBA Finals on Friday at Entertainment and Sports Arena was a rematch in name alone, as so much had changed for the Washington Mystics and Seattle Storm since the previous time these teams met.
But despite the Storm playing without all-star Sue Bird and reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart, despite the hobbled lineup the Mystics trotted out for last year’s Finals series is now healthy and despite the fact that last year’s series was a rather noncompetitive 3-0 Seattle sweep, Friday night proved that this matchup still has bite.
Seattle rallied for a 74-71 win that came down to the final seconds and was sealed when Aerial Powers missed a jumper with 2.8 seconds remaining.
The Storm (5-3) had rallied from a 12-point deficit in the third quarter to tie the score at 71 with 49.3 seconds to go thanks to a short jumper by Natasha Howard; Jewell Loyd hit a shot with 8.6 seconds left to put Seattle ahead.
With time left to effort a game-tying basket, Natasha Cloud couldn’t find an open player on an inbounds play and called a timeout. Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault made Powers the inbounder the second time around; she lobbed a pass to Elena Delle Donne, who tipped it back to Powers, but the guard drove and her shot was off the mark.
“If I could draw that up again, I’d draw that up again,” Thibault said.
It wasn’t that Powers didn’t get a good look; her shot simply didn’t fall.
It was a quiet night in the Mystics’ locker room, not just because of the loss but because the team executed a “media blackout” in hopes of raising awareness about gun violence in D.C. — specifically Ward 8. Cloud gave a statement, and no other players answered any questions.
“We’re talking about the loss of a game. There’s a lot more losses going on within our community, especially within this community, Ward 8,” Cloud said. “So we as a team want to only bring light to the issues going on within this community, and that is the violence around kids going to school.”
While Cloud spoke for the team, Thibault carried out his postgame news conference as usual, highlighting a dismal offense that doomed the Mystics (4-3) late in the game.
Poor shooting bedeviled Washington throughout a miserable fourth quarter in which the Mystics were outscored 22-8.
They started the game shooting well enough — 44.1 percent from the field and 50 percent on three-pointers — to take a 46-38 lead into halftime even without starting guard Kristi Toliver, who had been ejected in the first quarter after receiving two technical fouls for a pair of strong responses to fouls called against her.
Powers took her place with the starters and did well for a time, bringing her brand of intense energy, knocking down a pair of three-pointers in the first half and chest-bumping Cloud at one point.
It looked as though Powers and Delle Donne, who led the team with 19 points and eight rebounds, were enough offensive power to outmatch a Storm team playing without Bird, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury, and Stewart, who will miss the season after rupturing her Achilles’ tendon playing overseas.
LaToya Sanders kept Howard, the Storm’s leading scorer at 19.6 points, to just 11 points through three quarters, and neither Loyd nor Mercedes Russell were scoring threats.
But Washington had five turnovers in the fourth quarter and looked frazzled at times, especially when Howard locked in on Delle Donne and Seattle’s defense tightened its double-teams on the all-star forward.
Thibault cited small mistakes — such as clock mismanagement, lapses in focus and turnovers — as the things that doomed the Mystics.
“We have to go make up for it somewhere in the next month,” Thibault said. “You have to get one that maybe nobody expects you to win. You’ve got to go get one of those somehow, because we gave one tonight. Credit Seattle for hanging in, but I think as much as anything, when you shoot the ball like we did, it’s hard to win a game shooting 30-something percent.”