After 21 seasons filled with pain, anguish and “there’s always next year,” this year was the year for Washington.
The Mystics defeated the Connecticut Sun, 89-78, in a decisive Game 5 to clinch the championship series, 3-2. The score may make it sound like it was comfortable, though it was anything but.
How did Washington overcome the Sun to earn its first crown and provide head coach Mike Thibault and forward Elena Delle Donne, two of the biggest figures in the league, with their first titles? Here’s how:
Elena Delle Donne, A.K.A. The Bionicle
Delle Donne looked like a lab-made human as she rumbled around the court with a massive knee brace, a face mask and a back seemingly kept together with heavy duct tape. She only played a few minutes in Game 2 after suffering a herniated disk in her back. As it turns out, she didn’t only have one. Delle Donne had three herniated disks and played through them anyway.
This was the second-straight year Delle Donne dealt with an injury during the Finals, and unsurprisingly, it severely hampered her effectiveness in Games 3 and 4. But the same player who seemed afraid, or perhaps unable, to perform simple plays like perimeter close outs and banging down low earlier in the series was all over the court Thursday.
In the second half, the Mystics continually ran similar action to get isolation for Delle Donne or Emma Meesseman (who I’ll get to) as close to the block as possible, and time after time, Washington’s bigs came through.
But her size defensively also caused issues for Connecticut, a change from the past couple of games when Delle Donne couldn’t move well enough to keep up. She hauled down nine rebounds in Game 5, almost bettering her total in Games 2, 3 and 4 combined. The winner of the rebounding battle took each matchup of the five-game series, so if you think having someone of Delle Donne’s caliber cleaning up the glass as she does isn’t a huge boost, you need to find a new sport.
Delle Donne finished the game with 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting and got to the foul line six times, another example of either how much she healed or how little she cared about her health in the face of a WNBA Finals Game 5. Either way, she got it done Thursday, and the Mystics needed every bit of her performance to triumph.
Emma Meesseman Isn’t Human
I have been trying to decide what planet, or perhaps far away galaxy, Emma Meesseman is from. She’s supposedly “Belgian,” whatever that means, and I don’t buy it. Humans don’t grow to that size while maintaining the balance and grace of a ballet dancer. It just doesn’t happen. We need an investigation.
In the mean time, I have come to accept that the WNBA will continue to allow Meesseman, and likely other non-human creatures, to play in its league. Although it might not be fair, all I can do is watch and enjoy.
And how could you not enjoy watching her play? She can shoot, she can drive, she can finish through contact. Meesseman has been scoring buckets that cannot be defended all playoffs long, and she did it again Thursday. Like I said, Thibault was running constant actions for Meesseman and Delle Donne to get the ball near the block all second half long, and Meesseman was every bit as successful as the league’s MVP. In fact, she was more so.
Meesseman scored 15 of her team-high 22 points in the second half, particularly exploding in the third quarter, sinking four of her five shots in the period. For the night, she shot 9-of-13 from the floor, and even though only one make was a triple, the threat she poses from deep yet again stretched the defense, opening lanes for her teammates to work with. Yet again, she came through in a massive way for Washington, and it could not have won this championship without her incredible postseason.
Courtney Williams Lost Control
Sun guard Courtney Williams put up some huge performances at times in this series, but Thursday was not her day.
She finished with 16 points, but that is a shallow description of the night she had. In the second half, she forced the issue way too many times, electing to take erratic, wild chucks at the rim with stubborn drives among Washington’s trees mixed in. Williams shot 4-of-13 from the floor in the last two quarters and provided the Mystics with plenty of opportunities to find open shots in transition on the other end. For the game, she was 7-of-20 and 0-of-2 from behind the arc, a far cry from the six three-pointers she drilled in Game 1 or the 22 points and six assists she notched in Game 3.
As a team, Connecticut didn’t do well from deep, though. The Sun were 2-of-12 (16.7 percent) from three-point land, by far their worst performance from that part of the floor in the series. Williams didn’t help, but Jasmine Thomas, Shekinna Stricklen and Jonquel Jones didn’t chip in enough three-point support like they had at other points in the Finals, and in the end, it bit them.
Mike Thibault & The Mystics Really Done Did It
The winningest coach in WNBA history finally has a title to go along with all those victories. And to do it against his former team that fired him for his inability to win a championship, no less? These are the kinds of story lines that sports provide us in real life all the time.
Thibault and the entire Mystics organization are an excellent example of redemption and persevering through past failures. Here is an organization that has never really tasted much success in two decades of existence. Before Thibault, the ‘Stics went through 12 coaches in 15 years from 1998-2012 and occasionally made playoff appearances, mostly just to be bounced early and forgotten about in WNBA mediocrity for another season. Thibault was hired prior to the 2013 season, and he got the squad to three-straight Eastern Conference Semifinals but no further. In our prestige rankings from before the start of the 2019 season, Washington was ranked ninth out of the 12 active teams and 14th out of 23 squads to ever exist in the league.
Fast forward to 2017. Thirsty to turn Washington into a contender, Thibault and the Mystics sent the No. 2 pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft, center Stefanie Dolson and guard Kahleah Cooper to the Chicago Sky in exchange for Delle Donne. Not long after, the team made some more moves to make space to sign Kristi Toliver as a free agent.
People questioned why the stars would join a fledgling franchise that struggled to even qualify for the postseason, but Delle Donne and Toliver saw what others didn’t.
“Never listen to the crowd, because people thought I was crazy,” Delle Donne told Gene Wang of the Washington Post after the Game 5 victory. “Just belief in myself, belief in this city, belief in coach’s dream and just trusting the process.
“Kristi and I came here – I believe they hadn’t made the playoffs [the previous season] – and we knew there was a special team and coach had a dream, and we believed in it.”
In 2017, the team made it to the Semifinals and stalled. In 2018, it took one step further, lasting until the Finals before bowing out. In 2019, well, you know the rest.
Sports and society are a reflection of one another. The climb the Mystics took, through hard work, shrewd moves and not allowing failure to poison their minds, is possible in life as well. There’s no guarantee. Success will not be given. But it can be done, and it’s only possible if you let failure teach, not discourage.
Needless to say, when our prestige rankings update, Washington won’t be ninth.