But July 19 in Indianapolis was a milestone not just for Delle Donne; it was a watershed moment for the Mystics as whole. That seemingly mundane, 95-88 win over the Indiana Fever on a Friday night was the turning point when the Mystics went from a talented, promising team to a dominant force in the WNBA.
“There was just an understanding that we had another level,” starting guard Natasha Cloud said.
The difference before and after that July 19 contest — the 16th of a 34-game season — is clear: The Mystics averaged 84.8 points and shot 44.7 percent from the field before Delle Donne emerged with the mask; afterward, they averaged 92.8 points and shot 48.7 percent from the field.
The statistical improvement made a huge impact: Before July 19, the Mystics were 9-6. Beginning with that game, they closed out the regular season on a 17-2 run.
What changed wasn’t just the health of Delle Donne, who said she started to feel like a superhero gearing up for battle when she dressed for games, adding the face mask to the heavy-duty, custom knee brace she had been wearing all season to protect a deep bone bruise. Her return coincided with one other major improvement for Washington: Emma Meesseman’s second game back after missing 12 games over a month while playing for the Belgian national team.
With Delle Donne and Meesseman back together for the first time since 2017 — Meesseman sat out the 2018 season for a physical and mental break from the year-round basketball schedule she had maintained since she was drafted in 2013 — Washington’s offensive-minded identity started to take shape.
“We had Emma for the rest of the year. We kind of have two identities in that we have a small-lineup identity and a big-lineup identity, and we figured out how to balance back and forth between those,” Washington Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault said. “It wasn’t easy to do that early on . . . we just figured out different ways to play.”
Having Meesseman back in practice meant the Mystics could work on their big lineup, which entailed Thibault putting Meesseman, Delle Donne and center LaToya Sanders on the court at the same time. The group brought the team success late in the regular season and was particularly effective in the first two games of the WNBA semifinal series against Las Vegas.
Playing with that big lineup also helped the Mystics improve their defense, which in turn led to better offensive performances late in the season.
“We bought into the defensive end,” Cloud said. “I think that was the biggest thing on the whole this season: buying into the defensive end and allowing our offense to come from our defense.”
The other adaptation Washington made in the second half of the season was playing without starting point guard Kristi Toliver, who missed the final 11 games of the regular season because of a bone bruise and slight tear in her medial collateral ligament in her right knee. Reserve guard Aerial Powers started in her place, bringing characteristic energy to the starting lineup — and with that, plenty of rebounds.
The Mystics won eight games by 20 or more points after July 19, blowing out teams mainly with incredible offensive might that originated in their three-point shooting. But Washington players believe that getting used to playing with Meesseman again and then subbing in Powers for Toliver made them more versatile.
Winning with varied lineups and in varied situations meant the Mystics, who set a WNBA record for three-pointers per game this season, were able to beat the Connecticut Sun in the decisive Game 5 of the WNBA Finals despite making just four three-pointers.
“If you had told me that we were going to win last night playing almost a different kind of game, in the sense that we had four threes but we had 50 points in the paint, which is unheard of for our team, it was our team figuring out how to win that particular game,” Thibault said.
Meesseman was named MVP of the Finals after leading the Mystics with 22 points Thursday. She averaged 17.8 points, 4.6 rebounds while shooting 57.1 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the three-point arc against Connecticut and was the first reserve to be named Finals MVP in league history.
“We were really, really aggressive because we really wanted it,” Meesseman said. “There was a switch, halfway through: It was now or never, we cannot let this go. And then we were just attacking. Maybe it was a different game, you know. It was a really good look at who the Mystics are.”
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