The Washington Mystics are back in the WNBA Finals, for the second straight year. But they damn near killed me and everyone else watching their 94-90 victory over the Las Vegas Aces. What a tense basketball game. Each team fought back from the dead on multiple occasions. It was impressive from both teams, but the Mystics pulled out the win. The game was too hype to fall asleep after, so here are some delirious thoughts from one of the best games in the 2019 WNBA season.
Emma Threesseman saves the day
At some point in this game, some jerk with a twitter account dared to tweet that Emma Meesseman was “killing the Mystics.”
Emma is kind of killing the Mystics right now. I dont know where her confidence went. @TheWinsidr
— Gabe Ibrahim (@gabe_ibrahim) September 25, 2019
What a fool. To be fair to myself, Emma had just 4 points in the first half, passed up a ton of open looks, and gunked up the offense a bit. But then, Game 1 and 2 Emma Meesseman came back in the second half. Or as I like to call her, Emma Threesseman. She put up 18 second-half points on 4 of 4 from deep and 7 of 9 from the field.
Meesseman also came through in the clutch. With less than five minutes left, Emma found EDD sprinting into the lane and threw a pass to where only Delle Donne could reach it. (Links are to WNBA Stats videos.) It was like a quarterback finding a tight end in a sea of defenders.
After missing a tough reverse layup that would have put the Mystics up 7, Meesseeman came back with two of biggest defensive plays of the season. Liz Cambage, who had 25 points, got EDD to bite on an up-and-under for an easy layup with 2:44 that would give Vegas the lead. But Emma wouldn’t let it happen. She crashed down on Liz and got just enough of the ball to block the shot. THEN MEESSEEMAN DID IT AGAIN. She came from the free throw line to swat a much tougher look for Liz with 50 seconds left.
After that, Meesseman just hit the biggest shot of the series and her career. She curled off a Kristi Toliver pindown and nailed the jumper to put the Mystics up 3 with 27 seconds left. It was the exact type of shot that Meesseman loves to hit.
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 25, 2019
Meesseman averaged 21.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in this series. She came up with answers when Washington needed it. Like Elena Delle Donne said after the game, Emma “played like a MVP.”
Thibault’s trust gets rewarded
As Derek Fisher gets bashed for taking out his star player in a playoff game, Coach Mike Thibault may have gotten bashed for keeping his in if the Mystics lost.
Kristi Toliver looked like she couldn’t play at times in Game 4. The bulky knee brace on her leg, or maybe just the knee itself, seemed to weigh her down. Toliver, an all-star with a championship ring, still made some spectacular plays. But she looked just a little off in the first half. Toliver struggled defensively and took some wild shots in isolation.
But Thibault stuck with Kristi. She rewarded him with one of her best quarters of the season. In the third quarter, Toliver poured in 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting including some dazzling layups in traffic. She energized the team and made Coach T’s decision seem easy in hindsight.
But it wasn’t just Toliver. Every player on the team needed Coach T’s and her teammates’ trust. Emma struggled early. Natasha Cloud and Latoya Sanders were coming off tough games. Aerial Powers lost minutes. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Tianna Hawkins had yet to play meaningful playoff minutes at all.
The team’s trust in everyone on this roster never wavered. They trusted Emma and Toliver to carry the scoring load at times (along with Elena Delle Donne who had 25 points). Cloud barely came out of the game and her teammates kept feeding her shots. They encouraged Sanders to shoot jumpers, which she nailed, and let her go one-on-one defensively with Liz. Aerial Powers brought energy and grabbed some massive boards. SWK and Hawkins made positive plays in a very tight first half.
The Washington Mystics have been defined by trust and love of one another all year. Game 4 was the time they needed to trust each other the most. They did and they’re on to the Finals.
I forgot about A’ja Wilson in a playoff game. The All-Star Captain just seemingly disappeared in Game 4. She scored just 4 points on 1 of 4 shooting and 6 rebounds. But this wasn’t a Candace Parker situation where Laimbeer benched A’ja (sorry Sparks, but it’s applicable here). Wilson played 26 minutes and most of the first 3 quarters. She just didn’t produce.
Wilson was not the only Ace who couldn’t get going. Jackie Young struggled to get on the floor and coughed up two crucial turnovers in the third quarter. Kayla McBride shot 20% from the field and finished with 8 points. It was astonishing to see Wilson and McBride struggle so badly in such a pivotal game. It was like trying to see the stars in the middle of a city. You know they are there, but you can’t see them.
They will have to dig into their performances to understand what happened. But first, Wilson, McBride and the Aces will need to move on from this loss because it’s very tough.
This is Year 2 of Bill Laimbeer’s 3-year Plan
Vegas Head Coach Bill Laimbeer had some interesting quotes after Game 1 of these Semifinals, which are important now that the Aces lost. First, he called the game (and maybe the series) “a good learning experience” for his team. He elaborated on that by reminding the media of his plan:
I told everybody all along this is your two or three. If it happens in year two, Oh wonderful! That’s up to the players. I gave them everything I had this year, as far as experience of what to expect. And threw the kitchen sink at them. All season long from the media to you know, you name it, and we threw it out so they could get over the hump as fast as possible. Now whether we perform to a level we can win the championship, that’s why we play the games.
Well, they played the games and lost three of them. The Aces will be home for the Finals, instead of vying for their title. However, Laimbeer is a great coach with a extremely talented, hungry roster. He never quite figured out how to use Cambage and Wilson together on either end. Additionally, it was hard to get his best five players on the court together once Dearica Hamby rose to prominence. Laimbeer will have some tinkering to do, both with the roster and with his strategies. But this team showed flashed of greatness and Laimbeer will figure out how to get it out of them.
Laimbeer also knows what it’s like to lose in the playoffs. He will use this loss to propel his team forward and bond them tighter together. He said he threw everything he had at the Aces. But, this playoff loss is something he couldn’t simulate. The team had to experience it on their own. It may just be the thing that pushes the Aces over that “hump,” which is terrifying for the rest of the league.