If Delle Donne’s return played a vital role in Washington’s victory that put the Mystics up two games to one in the best-of-five WNBA Finals, Cloud’s performance on both sides of the court altered the game in the eyes of her teammates and Coach Mike Thibault.
Entering Sunday, Sun combo guard Courtney Williams had been averaging 21 points, shooting 46.7 percent from the field, including half of her 24 three-point attempts throughout the playoffs.
In Sunday’s Game 3, Cloud limited Williams to 2-for-9 shooting and just six points. Williams missed her lone three-point attempt and was replaced for an extended stretch late in the game by Rachel Banham.
“She understands angles,” Thibault said of Cloud. “I think the one thing you have to do is, I thought Courtney got a little comfortable the first couple of games where she caught the ball. Tash, with all people she plays, makes them have to catch it a little bit more under duress. You don’t get a clean look when you catch it.”
An example came late in the third quarter, with the Mystics leading 65-55. Cloud forced Williams into a rare misstep, jarred the ball loose, and hit the floor to grab it first.
“I’m bigger, stronger, so muscling her off before she comes off the screens,” Cloud described her assignment as she saw it. “Pushing her catches out a little bit further to make her uncomfortable. Making sure that I try to stay as much attached off the ball screens and just contesting her shots.”
Cloud, who does not shrink from proclaiming her superiority, added: “I think I should’ve been guarding her from the jump.”
If the concern was that added defensive responsibilities would slow down Cloud’s effectiveness as a playmaker, those proved unwarranted Sunday. Cloud finished with 19 points and four assists, did not commit a turnover, and looked for her shot early and often, ultimately hitting half of her 10 three-point attempts.
Cloud noticed right away that the Sun was guarding her with a less mobile defender, Shekinna Stricklen, and that Stricklen was going under screens, meaning that if Cloud got the ball on the perimeter she would have a clean look at a three-point attempt.
“Playing my role for the team, hitting open shots when they go to double, but I’m prepared for this,” Cloud said. “I’ve worked for this and I’m ready.”
That work showed up in the numbers. Cloud was a 23.5-percent three-point shooter in 2017. Over the past two seasons, she’s at 34.8 percent, and in the 2019 playoffs, that’s jumped to 41.7 percent.
“Tash, when she makes some threes early, that puts a lot of pressure on teams,” Thibault said. “She’s worked so hard on that part of her game this year. She’s gone from being a high 20s, low 30s percent shooter from three, to the mid-30s which is now like shooting 50-some percent from two. And that’s a big part of it. And when she makes those shots, now you’re kind of in trouble as a defensive team.”
Beyond the numbers, though, Cloud never stopped leading her team. In a huddle with Delle Donne and the championship-pedigreed Kristi Toliver, Cloud was giving instructions.
Even her time on the bench was active: She stood throughout, edging closer and closer to the court, at one point an official gently motioning to her to move back when she’d actually crossed the line.
Her body language suited every situation. When Emma Meesseman hit three three-pointers early in the fourth quarter, Cloud celebrated with two hands, each with three fingers outstretched, while stomping, getting into a celebratory crouch.
“Absolutely. You see how low I got?” Cloud said, crediting the training staff for helping her flexibility.
She seemed to soak in every moment, even playing peek-a-boo with a towel she’d wrapped around her neck with a former college teammate in the crowd.
When it was over, Cloud dribbled out the last few seconds, and as the buzzer sounded, had one final message for her team as they lined up for the postgame handshake line: two fingers in the air.