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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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Expectations weren't high, but at 2-7 are the Wizards underachieving?

Expectations weren't high, but at 2-7 are the Wizards underachieving?

Should the Wizards be better than this?

Certainly, what has transpired so far this season has not been all that surprising. They let more talent leave than they brought in over the summer, but by-design to get younger players with more long-term upside and more financial flexibility. With the roster they put together, few out there had any delusions of them contending for a top seed in the Eastern Conference.

But after nine games they sit 2-7, as certifiably one of the worst teams in basketball. No teams have fewer wins than the Wizards and only three have more losses. Those three are the Pelicans (Zion Williamson got hurt), the Warriors (everyone got hurt) and the Knicks. Hey, at least they're not the Knicks.

A 2-7 record, though, is a 2-7 record and some of the numbers aren't pretty. The Wizards are allowing 120 points per game, fourth-most in the NBA. Their 114.6 defensive rating is 29th out of 30 teams.

To be fair, we knew they were going to be dreadful defensively. Though they made some astute moves in the offseason, they basically brought in all offensive-minded players. 

Yes, much of what has happened for the Wizards this season has been predictable. But when you bring a magnifying glass over the big picture things have been, well, just okay so far.

When it comes to individuals, it's a mixed bag. Rui Hachimura has been a nice surprise because of how quickly he has translated to the NBA as a rookie. Thomas Bryant looks at least marginally improved. His trajectory appears to be continuing upward.

Moe Wagner has been solid, at least showing enough to prove he isn't the bust he resembled last year in L.A.. Davis Bertans has been excellent, giving general manager Tommy Sheppard an early feather in his cap by possibly beating the vaunted Spurs in a trade.

Isaiah Thomas has been mostly good so far. He may not be the All-NBA star from his Boston days, but the Wizards are at least getting more than Denver got out of him last year. 

But there have been some relative disappointments. Ish Smith and C.J. Miles haven't gotten going yet, though their long veteran track records should present some hope.

Troy Brown Jr. has not shown anything to suggest a second-year leap, but he missed all of the preseason with a calf injury and may need some time to catch up. Jordan McRae hasn't been great either, but should also be graded on a curve because of his injury.

We haven't seen anything conclusive yet from Admiral Schofield or Justin Robinson. Isaac Bonga was okay when he started the first seven games of the season, but showed nothing to write home about.

There have been some positives and some negatives, which is to be expected. Their latest loss was understandable, as they fell in Boston to the NBA-best 9-1 Celtics on Wednesday night. But their loss the game before, by double-digits at home to the Cavaliers, was a head-scratcher.

And still, 2-7 is 2-7. Right now, the Wizards look safely headed towards the lottery, hoping the ping-pong balls bring them a future star in James Wiseman or Cole Anthony.

Really, if that happens and they fall well short of the playoffs, it's okay. They are going to need more building blocks, anyways.

The Wizards are a franchise in transition, having just restructured their front office. The early part of this season is essentially baseline testing. It's not about how they look now, it's what they turn into by the end of the season and the foundation they lay for the future.

This year will be viewed as a success if Hachimura and Bryant continue to ascend, if Brown Jr. turns a corner and if some combination of Wagner, Schofield and Bonga show promise. Maybe Bertans, Thomas and Miles are flipped at the trade deadline for future assets.

It's still very early. We are just getting a good read on what the Wizards are at the moment.

As long as they make progress and trend up from here, things will be fine. If they don't, then there might be a different conversation.

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Rui Hachimura bluntly describes Wizards' defensive struggles this season

Rui Hachimura bluntly describes Wizards' defensive struggles this season

The Wizards didn't just drop their third straight to fall to 2-7 Wednesday night in Boston, but they again gave up an obscene amount of points. 

Washington fell 140-133, marking the fifth time in the first nine games in which they've given up more than 120 points. They've held an opposing offense under 100 twice. 

After the loss, Scott Brooks said the team's defensive issues started with the scouting report. Players weren't familiar enough with the Celtics' tendencies so when Washington needed a stop, they couldn't get one. 

Rookie forward Rui Hachimura put it a bit more bluntly. 

“From the beginning of the season, our defense has been no good," he said. 

With Hachimura, Bradley Beal and Isaiah Thomas, the Wizards shouldn't have any issue scoring this season. They have the sixth-ranked offense in the NBA, but the fact that they still have a -4.4 net rating is telling to how bad they've been on the other end.

The Wizards are in the midst of a rebuilding year. The goals for teams like these are to acquire young talent and hope they develop into foundational pieces. As important as obtaining talent is, building good habits can make or break a young player's development, especially in the age of the one-and-done.

They'll have to commit more to the defensive end if they have any hopes of putting multiple wins together. The question is whether they have the personnel to do it. 

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