Mystics ride momentum past Storm to fifth straight win

With all the talk about the Aces, the stand they took and the game they didn’t play last week, it’s time to take a look at the team they didn’t face that night: the Mystics.

Coach Mike Thibault made it clear he wasn’t pleased with Las Vegas’ decision last Friday. And we still haven’t been informed by the WNBA about whether the Aces organization will have to reimburse the Mystics for lost revenue.

But the Mystics, like the Aces, had to quickly move on from Friday’s drama because Washington had two tough road games at Dallas and Phoenix up next. And for a team that went into the All-Star break having lost three of its last four, including a 94-68 thumping at Connecticut on July 24, the Mystics knew a lot was on the line.

And they’ve responded. The Mystics have won all five games since the break (counting the forfeit by Las Vegas). That included ending Atlanta’s eight-game winning streak. Most impressive was Thursday’s 100-77 victory over league-leading Seattle, the most points the Storm have allowed this season. It puts the Mystics at 19-11 and still right in the mix for one of the early-round byes into the semifinals. The Dream are 19-10 and the Sparks 18-11, and those teams meet Thursday night in Atlanta.

Washington has done it without their second-leading scorer from last season, Emma Meesseman, who skipped this WNBA season to prepare with the Belgian national team for the FIBA World Cup, which will be held in Spain this fall.

Elena Delle Donne (21.0 PPG) and Kristi Toliver (13.6 PPG), the pillars of the Mystics who have played as expected, have had a solid supporting cast that has stepped forward at different times and made an impact.

Tuesday’s 103-98 victory over Phoenix was a showcase of the Mystics’ two All-Stars, with Delle Donne scoring 30 points — she is tied with Breanna Stewart and Liz Cambage with five such games this season — and Toliver 25. This came after Toliver had saved the game for the Mystics at Dallas on Sunday, when her 8-0 run closed out the scoring in a 76-74 win over the Wings.

But in both Dallas and Phoenix, two other Mystics starters came up big, too. LaToya Sanders was 7 of 11 from the floor for 15 points and five rebounds against the Wings, and then 8 of 11 for 19 points with five boards against the Mercury. Natasha Cloud had 13 points against Dallas, and 15 points and six assists against Phoenix.

Then in a Thursday matinee in Washington, the Mystics took control from the start against the Storm and never let up. Delle Donne had her second consecutive 30-point game and has shot 70 percent (21 of 30) in those two contests. Sanders (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Cloud (14 points, eight assists) came through again, too.

The Mystics also held Storm star Breanna Stewart to just 10 points, less than half her season average.

Sanders didn’t play in the WNBA last season and appeared in just four games in 2016. But she’s having the best of her six seasons in the league this year, averaging 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. At 6-foot-3, Sanders is an undersized but experienced battler at center. Much as the Mystics would have loved to have Meesseman this year, Sanders has made that absence much less difficult for Washington.

Cloud, a guard drafted in the second round by Washington in 2015, is also having her best WNBA season. She’s averaging 9.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists, all career highs. She brings a lot overall to the Mystics, who missed her when she was out with a concussion for the three games prior to the All-Star break.

“She’s our motor,” Delle Donne said of Cloud. “She gets us up and down the floor and plays great defense.”

That is the area that has most concerned the Mystics. They know that defensively they have the ability to be, if not great, at least good enough.

“Our defensive consistency has got to get better,” Delle Donne said at the All-Star break. “One game, we shut down the other team, and I feel like it makes our offense flow nicely. But then the next game, it’s like we’re not even out there. That’s gotta change in order for us to be a championship team.”

The Mystics have been more consistent since the break. But does Washington have enough weapons to contend for a title? That would be a challenge; the Mystics have never made it as far as the finals. But led by premiere offensive players like Delle Donne and Toliver, they aren’t going to be beaten easily by any team, either.

Guard Ariel Atkins, the Mystics’ first-round draft pick this year, has worked out well, averaging 10.9 points per game. Monique Currie, Tianna Hawkins and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt are all dependable role players, the kind who try to do whatever is asked of them. The Mystics also got bench help by adding Aerial Powers in a late-July trade with Dallas.

Washington’s four remaining games are against Dallas at home, at Indiana, home versus Los Angeles, and at Minnesota.

If the Mystics get another shot at the semifinals like last year, when they were swept by eventual champion Minnesota, are they more prepared and equipped to win that best-of-five series? It looks like it. If nothing else, they’ve shown in their play since the All-Star break that they are going to fight hard to the finish.

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