Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault swears this is just another game.
He says there’s no added importance to playing the Seattle Storm Wednesday at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C., and beating the team that swept them in last year’s WNBA Finals — who beat them earlier in the season in Washington — wouldn’t mean any more than any other win.
Maybe he’s telling the truth.
After defending league MVP Breanna Stewart was lost for the year with an Achilles injury, the Mystics became title favorites. Now, they’re finally playing like it, and forward Elena Delle Donne is looking like she might once again capture the MVP, as she did in Chicago in 2015.
It’s a tight race atop the WNBA standings, with just 1.5 games separating the top four teams. But Washington’s 17-7 record has the Mystics finally a game clear of Connecticut. Deeper numbers tell a different story of how dominant they’ve been of late.
They’ve won three straight and eight of nine, five of those wins coming by double figures. Their 9.7 point differential per game is more than double the next closest team’s (Las Vegas, 4.8) and the third-highest in the history of the league, trailing only the 2012 and 2017 Minnesota Lynx (9.8/11.2). That 2017 team won the title; the 2012 team came up short in the Finals.
A top-two seed (and the first-round playoff bye that comes with it) is very much there for the taking with 10 games to play. But with veteran starting point guard Kristi Toliver out the rest of this week following an injury to the same right knee that was banged up earlier this season, every game is crucial.
“I think everyone feels a little extra pressure when someone like Kristi is out of the game,” said Delle Donne after practice Tuesday.
That pressure will fall heavily to Natasha Cloud filling in at point guard, but the rest of the team will have the chance to alleviate the burden. The pairing of Delle Donne and fellow high-volume scorer Emma Meesseman has proved particularly fruitful for the Mystics lately and may be the key to their stretch run and playoff hopes.
Meeseman has only been back with the team for 13 games since returning from national team duty for Belgium, but has poured in season highs of 19 and 25 points her last two games. She’s shooting 61% from the floor overall, including a scorching 74% (34-of-46) in August.
“You don’t need to make anything complicated when you have Emma on the floor,” said Delle Donne. “It’s great playing with each other. I think we just know now, no matter what, when we’re on the court together, one of us is going to have a mismatch, because they can’t use their defender on both of us.”
The duo has recently seen time late in games when Delle Donne may normally have taken a seat just to get extended minutes of game action together. That may have helped her pad her already gaudy stats, sitting at second in the league in scoring (19.1 points per game), fourth in rebounds (8.3 per game) and eighth in blocked shots (1.3 per game). She’s also shooting better than 95 percent from the free-throw line for the third time in her career.
Meesseman’s emergence can only help. While Meesseman said it didn’t take her long to get up to speed, she was sometimes not as assertive as she needed to be in the early going.
“I think I was comfortable from earlier, [it was] just me not being aggressive enough or taking my open shots,” she said. “Now, the shots went in [and] there were more mismatches, so I just had to use them. My teammates told me to.”
With Tolliver out and fellow starting guard Ariel Atkins questionable for Wednesday, the onus will be on the bigs to lead the way. That’s just fine with Delle Donne.
“The more we can practice it in a gamelike atmosphere, the better,” she said. “It’s been good just getting minutes in, trying to figure that out. It’s confusing to other teams. You can tell they’re not really sure what to do with it.”
Even though that next team is Seattle, the Storm are just the next hurdle on the track in the turn and sprint to the postseason
“They’re just the next team on our schedule,” said Thibault.
“We know we’re going to make the playoffs. That’s just a matter of days, one way or the other. We’ve worked hard to put ourselves in position for a top-two seed.”