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Fittingly, the 'missing piece' Emma Meesseman rallies Mystics to WNBA title

Fittingly, the 'missing piece' Emma Meesseman rallies Mystics to WNBA title

WASHINGTON -- Emma Meesseman politely denies it. 

Even when basking in the glory of being named the WNBA Finals MVP, she will not take credit. Even when she is the lone difference in last year’s Mystics team that got swept in the Finals and the team that triumphed in five games this season. 

She’s shot it down ever since it’s been brought up. Her teammates certainly believe it and are quick to tout to anyone that asks. It was even the first thing Mike Thibault said in his post-championship press conference.

No one will ever get her to say – or admit – that she was the Washington Mystics’ “missing piece.”

Washington raising their first WNBA trophy with Meesseman as the most valuable player says otherwise. 

“She was the difference," Kristi Toliver said after calling her the “missing piece” again on Thursday. “The way she played tonight in the moments that she wanted the ball in the biggest moments, and a couple years ago she didn't. And so that's a huge credit to her and her growth as a player and a person. So she was enormous for us.”

Her story has been well-documented. Meesseman, a 2013 first-round draft pick for Washington, missed all of the 2018 season for a personal break from the game. Without her, the Mystics lost in the Finals to the Seattle Storm in three games. 

A year away clearly paid off as she ripped through the playoff competition. During the Finals, she averaged 17.8 points while shooting 57.1% from the field and 50% from behind the arc en route to the MVP award. Every game she came off of the bench. Every game she delivered double-digit scoring as well as providing some great defensive help in the post against the taller Connecticut Sun.  

Nicknamed “Playoff Emma,” the forward led the team in scoring in five of their nine playoff games. With the regular season MVP Elena Delle Donne hamstrung by a back injury, Meesseman was the one that stepped up to get the team their elusive championship.

That was no different in the deciding Game 5 against the Connecticut Sun. 

Shots were not falling for Washington. From the field, behind the arc, everyone was struggling. It was so bad Delle Donne couldn’t even hit a technical free throw. Washington was quickly down by nine. Immediately when she checked in during the second half Meesseman took over. 

In a six-minute span, the Belgian scored 11 points, all within the confines of the 3-point arc. A turnaround fading-away bank shot, a turnaround jumper with multiple ball fakes, a finger-roll drive to the cup, a standard pull-up jumper and three free throws got it down. She whipped out her entire arsenal, except her long-range game. 

By the time Connecticut realized they had poor Brionna Jones, who had only played 10 minutes in the series before Game 5, matched up against Meesseman, it was too late. 

“I just really, really wanted to win this game, so I just came on the court, and I knew that it was a moment that we needed some energy,” Meesseman said on her third-quarter performance. “I was just going at the basket, and it was going in, so I just kept going. Coach has been talking about, if your shot is going in, or even if not, you just have to take your opportunity.”

Meesseman finished the contest with a team-high 22 points. 

This year she took that opportunity by the horns. Never did Meesseman shy away from the moment. Fittingly it was the “missing piece” that was the one who pulled together a record-breaking season into the franchise’s first title. 

Sure, this title will be remembered as the first for several parties - Thibault, Delle Donne, Cloud among others. They "ran it back," smashing records in the process and are one of the few record-breaking teams to culminate their season with a  championship. It was the first for the franchise, christening the new Entertainment and Sports Arena.

But when the confetti is all swept away, never forget the importance of Emma Meesseman. 

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Ted Leonsis indicates Scott Brooks will be judged by player development, not wins and losses

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Ted Leonsis indicates Scott Brooks will be judged by player development, not wins and losses

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards have set modest goals for this season after a summer full of organizational change and the evaluation of head coach Scott Brooks will be in accordance with those expectations, managing partner Ted Leonsis said on Tuesday.

Leonsis addressed the media at a court unveiling in Southeast Washington, the latest charitable effort by Monumental Basketball, and he was asked if Brooks' job performance will be based on player development this season, instead of purely on wins and losses.

"Yeah," Leonsis said. "I think this is the happiest Scott has been since he's been in the organization. All coaches want is effort and coachability."

Leonsis explained in further depth how the team's expectations are different now and exactly where he will be looking for Brooks and his staff to make an impact.

"We had much different goals going into this season than we had in the past. In the past it was 'make the playoffs, win 50 games and go to the Eastern Conference Finals' and that plan failed. We admitted that and did a total reboot. I said 'why can't this reboot be fast?' We have over-indexed now on a lot of young players and the only way you will find out what you have built culturally is to let them play," Leonsis said.

"Now it's just learning to communicate, learning how to break out of the offensive system to go back on defense and that will come from coaching. We've certainly made a big enough investment in our coaching and staff, so I expect to see improvement across the board."

The Wizards have played to a 3-8 record in their first 11 games, which puts them second from the bottom in the NBA. Only the 2-12 New Orleans Pelicans have been worse.

Defense has been the main culprit, as they rank 29th out of 30 teams in defensive rating. Their offense, though, has been a surprise with the third-best offensive rating according to NBA.com.

The offensive success allowed Leonsis to take some jabs at the media.

"So, we're doing better offensively than I thought we would be doing. I think most of the experts said 'how are you going to score the ball?' That's what I heard going into the season. Well, that's not an issue. We're doing a little bit worse than I expected defensively because the effort is there," he said.

The offensive numbers certainly reflect well on Brooks. The defense, though, appears to be a problem that has no signs of going away. And long-term, the Wizards will need to improve drastically on that end of the floor to become a winning team.

As for Brooks' job status, it sounds like he could be in good standing if the young players on the team continue to develop. He is currently in the fourth year of a five-year contract worth $35 million. If the Wizards wanted to part ways before the end of those terms, they would have to buy him out.

"We don't have any expectations this year about wins and losses. It's more about culture, identity and what players will be with us on a long-term basis," Leonsis said.

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By the numbers: the areas the Wizards struggle the most on defense

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By the numbers: the areas the Wizards struggle the most on defense

The Washington Wizards are playing a unique brand of basketball. Despite their 3-8 record, they boast the second-highest offensive rating (113.2) in basketball, meaning they score more efficiently per 100 possessions than any other team. Yet, at the same time, they have the 29th-ranked defensive rating (115.2) and are allowing more points than anyone else (120.1/g).

It truly is a special combination. According to Basketball Reference, only one team in NBA history has ever held offensive and defensive ratings aboe 113 for an entire season, the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets. Those Nuggets actually won 46 games and made the playoffs.

So far the Wizards' defense has not been good enough to win, hence the 3-8 record. So, what exactly has been ailing their defense? Quite a bit, of course. You don't sink that low with one or two minor weaknessess.

Here is a look at their biggest problem areas on the defensive end...

Three-pointers

Three-point shooting is important these days, in case you haven't heard, and the Wizards have not been very good at defending the perimeter. The Wizards allow the fourth-highest percentage from three (37.1) and 12.6 made threes per game. This includes shots from true long distance. The Wizards are 29th in opponent shots made from 25 to 29 feet (9.5/g) and in percentage from that range (38.1).

Rebounding

This is a familiar problem for the Wizards, as they had the same issue last year. This time they are 26th in total rebounding, 28th in defensive rebounding and 29th in opponent offensive rebound percentage. That has led to the fourth-most second chance points allowed.

Rebounding just isn't the Wizards' forte at this point. Thomas Bryant leads them with nine boards per game and behind him are Moe Wagner (5.6/g) and Rui Hachimura (5.5). Troy Brown Jr. (5.3) and Bradley Beal (4.7) rebound well for their positions, but all in all it hasn't been enough.

Transition

The rebounding numbers have contributed to some rough moments on the fastbreak. Though it has cooled down a bit, the Wizards are still 15th in the NBA in opponent fastbreak points per game (13.3). Before this past weekend, they were near the bottom of the league in the category and it was enough for several players to point it out independently in interviews with the media.

Point guard

Any time a team struggles as badly as the Wizards have on defense, many are at fault. They aren't guarding the perimeter or protecting the rim. They are also giving up the most field goals made within 15 to 19 feet, so even the midrange is a blindspot for them.

But Isaiah Thomas has certainly stood out and not for good reasons. He is already undersized and now he is in a defensive structure that isn't build to compensate for his shortcomings. Maybe in Boston he could just divert players into traps, but the Wizards do not offer that type of backend security.

Add it all up and the Wizards are allowing 15.4 more points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the court than when he's off of it. 

Fouls

The best defensive teams can defend without fouling and the Wizards are not one of those teams. They are allowing teams to shoot the ninth-most free throws per game (25.8) and as a result, are giving up the sixth-most points at the free throw line (20.7/g).

Wagner is the headliner. He is third in the NBA with 7.5 fouls per 36 minutes. Jordan McRae is not far behind with 6.2 fouls per-36.

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