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Kristi Toliver is easing back from her injury, but she provided the spark in Game 1 for the Mystics

Kristi Toliver is easing back from her injury, but she provided the spark in Game 1 for the Mystics

WASHINGTON - Kristi Toliver had not seen in-game action in over a month heading into the WNBA Playoffs. Her extended time off did not stop her from hitting arguably one of the biggest shots for the Washington Mystics in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals. 

It was a classic Toliver step-back 3-pointer. The clock was winding down in a huge third quarter for the Mystics, the shot closely contested and the ballgame was tied.

Nothing but net.  

“Kristi had some Kristi moments,” Elena Delle Donne said postgame. “Thank God, where she just kind of carries us on her back and just plays so fearless.”

That bucket gave a struggling Mystics offense the final bolt of energy in a 97-95 victory over the Las Vegas Aces Tuesday night. Massive knee brace and all, Toliver's 3-pointer started a 19-6 run stretching deep into the fourth quarter. It jumpstarted the Mystics to the explosive firepower that had become the norm for the team throughout 2019. 

The Aces mounted a comeback, even had a chance at the game-tying basket. But Toliver’s three flipped the script on Washington’s slow start. 

The 11-year veteran checked in for the first time since Aug. 8 just over five minutes into the game. She had missed the final 11 regular-season games for Washington with a right knee injury. During that span, the team dominated the opposition going 10-1 without her. She missed essentially the last half of a record-breaking Mystics season. Most notably for her, she was out when the team set the all-time WNBA mark for made 3-pointers in a game against the Indiana Fever. 

With less than a week of practice, she had to prepare for biggest game of the season as her first one back. Five-on-five drills weren't even a thought until five days before the series was set to start.  Only Monday was when Mystics coach Mike Thibault made the decision that she would play.

Jumping right back in wasn’t the easiest transition for the seasoned Toliver. For the first time since 2014 Toliver was coming off of the bench and had to work herself back into a team playing in a rhythm never seen before in the WNBA. 

She missed her first four shots of Game 1. Part of the second unit, she had the tough defensive assignment against sharpshooter Kelsey Plum. Playing against the aggressive young star definitely forced Toliver to be engaged early. Plum had gone off for 10 points and helped the Aces jump up by seven at the break.

At halftime, Toliver was a minus-13 in the box score.

“I knew that there’ll be a little bit of rust and she struggled in the first half,” Thibault said. “I told her this morning, ‘you’re going to miss some shots. That’s going to happen. Even if you were at your top, you’re going to miss some.’ And so I thought her energy and her aggressiveness was better in the second half.”

In fact, her first made basket was the step-back three to end the third quarter.

Toliver finished the contest with eight points on a 3-for-8 shooting night with four assists. Off the bench, she played nearly 23 minutes, the most of any reserve. 

A good way for head coach Thibault to ease her back into the rotation.

“Coach did a good job as far as limiting my minutes so I would be able to be [at the end of quarters],” Toliver said postgame. “And we talked about it before that, we want me to be in at the end of games and quarters. Those are important times finishing halves and finishing quarters.”

Bringing Toliver back at the right pace is vitally important to this Mystics team. As the runner-up in the WNBA Finals last season, they had to go through the difficulty of playing without a 100% Delle Donne.

This year the pieces are still all in place, and more with Emma Meesseman. The team admirably has dealt with their starting point guard's absence. She's back now and her injury management is the biggest obstacle. 

Eventually, Toliver will likely be worked back into the starting lineup as the team’s primary ball-handler. Right now it’s just getting through recovery from Game 1 and making it to Thursday and Game 2. 

“[I feel] okay. I’m happy to have played in one. We’ll see how we feel tomorrow, with recovering and getting a lot of ice and treatment and all that. But this is the most I’ve played in five weeks so we’ll see tomorrow,” Toliver said. 

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Celtics resting all of their best players offers Wizards good chance for first win in final bubble game

Celtics resting all of their best players offers Wizards good chance for first win in final bubble game

It has been five months since the Wizards last won a game and it could be another four months until they have another chance. They enter Thursday's season finale against the Boston Celtics (12 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington) having lost all 10 of their games in the NBA's restart bubble, though technically only seven of them count.

That leaves Thursday's game with some relatively high stakes. The Wizards are trying to avoid leaving Disney World winless.

The good news is that the Boston Celtics see nothing to play for, so they are resting basically all of their best players. Their injury report reads like a starting lineup.

Out are Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis. Brown, Hayward and Smart are listed as out due to rest. The others have minor injuries. 

That could create an opening for the Wizards, who have yet to take advantage of the few breaks offered by their seeding game schedule. They lost to the Suns back before Phoenix became the surprise team of the bubble. They also lost to the Brooklyn Nets with most of their roster missing and then again to the Pacers who were without Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

On Tuesday, they fell to the Bucks who were missing Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton and saw Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected in the first half. The Wizards' lack of winning experience due to their very young roster has proven too much to overcome.

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Maybe that will change on Thursday as the Wizards sense their final opportunity for a win before they get on a flight and head back to Washington to begin their offseason. They will see a Celtics team whose top remaining scorer is Enes Kanter, who averages 8.1 points per game.

Boston is one of the best teams in the NBA when healthy. They have the third-best record in the East and rank top-four in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

And they still have one of their most valuable assets: head coach Brad Stevens. He happened to get a contract extension on Wednesday.

The odds might actually be in the Wizards' favor despite the fact they are missing Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans. We'll see if they can take advantage.

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Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended one game by NBA for headbutting Moe Wagner

Report: Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended one game by NBA for headbutting Moe Wagner

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks predicted that Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo would be suspended by the NBA for headbutting Moe Wagner in Tuesday night's game, and that is exactly what has happened.

Antetokounmpo will be banned for one game as the Bucks close out the regular season on Thursday against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Bucks will begin their postseason run after that as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Antetokounmpo and Wagner got into it in the first half after Wagner took a charge against him. Antetokounmpo approached Wagner after the whistle and lunged forward for the headbutt.

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He was ejected after the referees reviewed the replay. The Bucks still held on to beat the Wizards despite missing the reigning MVP.

Antetokounmpo, 25, is likely to win the MVP award again this year. He finishes his 2019-20 regular season with averages of 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.

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