The Washington Mystics first Finals appearance did not go as planned. No team plans on getting swept. But their disappointment in the outcome of the Finals does not mask the progress that they made this season and the hope for what lies ahead.
Sure, the 98-82 loss in Game 3 on Wednesday night stung as their first Finals home game turned out to be their last game of the season. But after the pain of the moment subsided, Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault and his players reflected on what the team accomplished this season.
“It’s been a great season for our organization, for our players, and we had a lot of growth,” said Thibault. “We’d like to have taken that one last step, but the window for us is open right now. We have a relatively young team. We have only played together with this core group basically for two years, and we have some reinforcements coming next year. And so we’re poised to get better.”
When Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver arrived in D.C. prior to last season, the talent level and expectations changed immediately for the Mystics. After going 13-21 the season prior, Washington finished the 2017 season at 18-16 and qualified for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. They defeated No. 7 seed Dallas in the opening round and upset No. 3 seed New York in the second round to advance to the semifinals. It was the furthest that the team had gone in the WNBA Playoffs in the franchise’s first 20 seasons.
Still, heading into the 2018 season, the Mystics were not predicted to be a championship contender. In the WNBA.com GM survey, Washington did not receive a vote when asked which team would win the 2018 Finals:
Which team will win the 2018 WNBA Finals?
- 1. Los Angeles Sparks: 33%
- 2. Minnesota Lynx: 25%
- T-3. Phoenix Mercury: 17%
- T-3. Connecticut Sun: 17%
- 5. Dallas Wings: 8%
“I posted on the board for my team in training camp one of the preseason predictions that was put out there,” said Thibault. “I don’t know if it was putting us seventh or eighth, I can’t remember, and our team took a look at that and said, hell, no.”
Washington put the voters and the rest of the league on notice early as they raced out to four straight wins. However, that was just the beginning of an up-and-down ride over the first two months of the season that saw the Mystics have a three-game losing streak, another four-game winning streak and a stretch of four losses in five games.
“It took us a lot of experimenting together throughout the year to really find our best groove, and we didn’t really get it until the All-Star break and it carried over into the Playoffs,” said Thibault. “The one thing we can do a little better is to be better earlier in the season.”
Coming out of the All-Star break, Washington won eight of its final nine games of the regular season to climb from the middle of the pack all the way up to the No. 3 seed in the postseason. That earned them a first-round bye and a matchup with the lowest remaining seed in the second round. However, that turned out to be the Los Angeles Sparks – the preseason favorites to win the title and a team that had appeared in the last two WNBA Finals – in a single-elimination matchup.
The Mystics routed the Sparks with a 32-point win to get back to the semifinals. It was in this round last season that the Mystics were swept by the eventual champion Lynx in three games. Washington was the lower seed in the round again, but took Game 1 from Atlanta and was poised to take Game 2 before Delle Donne crashed to the court late in the game clutching her left knee.
The Mystics would drop Game 2 and lose the subsequent Game 3 back in Washington as Delle Donne was forced to sit. With their season on the line, Delle Donne played through the painful bone bruise to help her team stave off elimination in Game 4 and force a winner-take-all Game 5 back in Atlanta. Washington got a double-double from Delle Donne, 19 points from Toliver and a game-high 20 points from rookie Ariel Atkins to seize control in the fourth quarter and punch their ticket to the Finals.
After taking the step to the semifinals last year, the Mystics took the next step by advancing to the Finals for the first time in franchise history this season. While Toliver and Delle Donne had been in the Finals before, with Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively, the rest of the roster had never been on this stage before. Despite the loss, the team earned valuable experience that they will be able to use next season.
“They’ve seen what this is like,” said Thibault. “Last year we got swept in the semifinals, didn’t like the experience, learned from it, and got here and just didn’t play well enough, didn’t shoot the ball well enough. My hats off to Seattle for being better than us.”
After the Game 3 loss, both Toliver and Delle Donne reflected back on what the team accomplished this year.
“We had a great season,” said Delle Donne. “I’m super proud of the way we bounced back from a lot of adversity that we faced all season long. Obviously, this Finals didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I think the great thing is that we can still improve. We don’t feel like we’ve peaked and this was it for us. We feel like we’ve got a lot of young, great talent, and obviously, this isn’t how we wanted it to end, but it’s an experience that we can grow from.”
Part of that young talent is Atkins, who the Mystics selected with the No. 7 pick in the 2018 Draft, and is already a year ahead of schedule according to Thibault. After averaging 11.3 points during the regular season, Atkins increased her scoring to 15.2 points per game in the playoffs. Fellow rookie Myisha Hines-Allen – the No. 19 overall pick – was also on the floor during the Finals, gaining valuable experience as she missed just one of her 11 shots in the series.
Keep in mind that the Mystics also played the entire season without Emma Meesseman – the team’s second-leading scorer last season – as she remained in Belgium to prepare for the upcoming World Cup with her national team. The return of Meesseman, the growth of this year’s rookie class and a chance to grab another player in next year’s draft, gives Washington plenty of hope for growth.
Delle Donne and Toliver spoke of a stronger culture that has developed over these past two seasons in Washington as the team has grown both on and off the court. So even though this season didn’t end in a championship, it remains a successful year in the long-term outlook for the franchise.
“A successful one,” said Toliver when asked to evaluate the season. “I mean, you can’t be unsuccessful if you’re in the Finals. You have to think big picture, and this team made a lot of great strides from last year into this year. We showed a lot of character this year, a lot of resiliency coming off after the All-Star break playing really well, and then obviously to make the Finals against a really great team.
“It didn’t go our way, but you’ve got to keep things in perspective, and everybody else in the league wishes that they were playing tonight, and so we’re very aware of that and thankful that we were here, and we know we can improve. And so we will.”