WASHINGTON -- There were countless times throughout the WNBA season where many could have written off the Mystics.
It could have been when the team was down to just six healthy players. It could have been when the team dropped three games in a row despite leading by double figures. It could have been when Tina Charles had to miss time with a hip injury, when Elena Delle Donne's back recovery was halted or when Myisha Hines-Allen and Ariel Atkins missed time down the stretch.
Heck, for those that stayed past that point, writing them off after head coach Mike Thibault entered the WNBA's health and safety protocols (meaning he would miss the final two games) would have been more than fair.
Yet in defiance of those obstacles, Washington fought and clawed for the final playoff spot on the last day of the season on Sunday afternoon. Even after being bruised, banged up, counted out and having one more mountain to climb, they made sure it came down to the final minutes against the Minnesota Lynx.
"We left it out there tonight," interim head coach Eric Thibault said following the season-ending loss. "I thought we took a couple punches from them: one in the first quarter and one in the third quarter, and came back and played hard."
Reflective of the season, the Mystics' backs were against the wall throughout the game. A win was their only hope to make the postseason, any missteps would be devastating. That was seen by their 15 turnovers, by former teammate Aerial Powers going off for 27 points for Minnesota, by allowing back-to-back offensive boards multiple times.
And after all the adversity Washington had faced in 2021, keeling over and letting those mammoth burdens finally take control would have been expected. Falling behind by double-digits could have been a breaking point.
But for this team, it wasn't.
"This has been a season from [expletive], to be honest with y'all," Natasha Cloud said postgame. "Every adversity that could be thrown at a team and organization was thrown at us this year... I am proud of our resiliency. I'm proud of our fight, but there's a lot of things that we need to get better at."
Cloud added: "And I think all of us need to go look in a mirror and self-reflect and figure out in which ways we need to be better, whether it's skill-wise, whether it's mentality-wise, whether it's being a good teammate, whether it's consistency and poise. There's a lot of room for growth."
"I'm very thankful that players, continued to come out and play hard [this year]," Charles said postgame."I think having a mix of age group, the young guys, they definitely, they didn't feel sorry for themselves."
There's no sugar coating the loss. No one was in the mood for that. But the fire and intensity shown in spurts from this game are exactly why Mike Thibault just wanted to find a way into the postseason and start from scratch there.
Minnesota slowly built the lead to 12 in the first half, it took all of three-and-a-half minutes for the Mystics to erase it. A 15-0 Washington run followed by nine empty possessions for the Lynx.
Once again the lead was back to 12 in the fourth quarter, Washington's defense clamped down and was back within three in three-and-a-half minutes. The fiery hometown fans at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C. reveled in those instances, doing all they could to will the team further.
The night finished with the teams even in turnovers. Washington scored 19 points off those mistakes compared to Minnesota's 16. Cloud and Charles had two steals apiece.
For whatever reason, that drive and intensity were not consistently seen throughout the season. One could argue that coming against the Lynx, one of the hottest teams in the WNBA, it was the Mystics' best effort displayed all year.
And that is where the problems lie.
"It's something that should have been there from the first game," Charles said. "You can't expect, because you're going into a game situation where you need this win, that it's going to last. It's good that we showed heart, players that return here next year, hopefully, they can carry that forward for the next season. If there's any good things to take away from this game is like you mentioned, there was spurts where it was high intensity. It felt like a playoff game, which it was to us. But yeah, that's something that the approach has to be from day one."
Nearly all season finding that approach was an issue. Some nights they were just lucky to overcome the lapses. The only time it wasn't in question was when Delle Donne was able to suit up on the floor in late August. But that didn't last as her return from back surgeries hit a wall almost as soon as she'd made it back to the court.
Charles is never one to challenge her effort. The same can be said for Cloud and Ariel Atkins. In this game alone Charles aggravated her back and stayed in. Atkins took several elbows to the face and tried to draw numerous offensive fouls. Cloud took on the most important matchups of the night from the opening tip, playing 36 minutes.
But for the rest of the roster, the perils of the season might have just been too much to overcome. Night in, night out it didn't happen.
Their heart and intensity might not have stood resolute through every possession on the season. There were gaps from time to time, possession to possession. But if there's anything learned from this year, it is to never doubt the fight from the Mystics.
"If this season can't break us down and knock us out - I mean obviously we didn't make playoffs - but like we stayed the course, and we're still standing here today, despite all that happened during the season," Cloud said.