WASHINGTON -- Injuries to key players has been an unfortunate trend in the WNBA this season with some of the sport's biggest stars like Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and others missing significant time. The Mystics know all too well how an injury can greatly affect a team's goals, as last year a knee problem for Elena Delle Donne contributed to them falling just short of a championship.
So, it is understandable why the Mystics have been extra cautious with All-Star guard Kristi Toliver as she continues to recover from a right knee strain. She has been sidelined since Aug. 8 when she banged knees with Stephanie Muvunga of the Indiana Fever and suffered a bruise so deep it affected her MCL.
It wasn't until Thursday, exactly five weeks after the collision, that Toliver made her return to 5-on-5 action in practice. She was limited to only about five minutes of the full scrimmage, plus another 25 minutes or so in halfcourt drills, but it represented a notable step forward as she eyes a potential return next week when the Mystics resume action in the playoffs.
"It's been a while. I'm good. Getting better," Toliver said. "It's been a process and it's testing my patience, but I'm getting there."
Covering for Toliver's absence has been the relatively easy part. The Mystics have continued to zoom along as a first-place juggernaut, beating nearly every team that has stood in their way. With Natasha Cloud stepping up to fill the void, Washington went 10-1 while Toliver was out to close the year and earn the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
During that 11-game stretch, they led the WNBA in points, assists, turnovers, offensive rating, defensive rating, three-point shooting (makes, attempts and percentage) and field goal percentage. Their league-best 14.8 net rating for the season spiked to 21.8 while Toliver was out.
That's how loaded the Mystics are this season. They lost a three-time All-Star and a veteran leader, yet continued to steamroll their hapless challengers. The only loss they had during that stretch was to the Chicago Sky and two weeks later they turned around and smashed them by 14 points.
Toliver's biggest regret was not playing when the Mystics set the WNBA single-game record for three-pointers. But the continued success of her teammates was pivotal because it allowed her to resist the urge to come back sooner than later.
"It eased the pressure on her to hurry to get back," head coach Mike Thibault said.
"I think part of it is that when you're a starting player and you have a lot to do with your team, it's like 'how are we gonna be when I'm not out there?'"
That doesn't mean the road has been easy for Toliver. She had never been through an extended injury absence like this before. The 11 games she missed were a career-high.
Toliver is more accustomed to playing through pain. She even practiced the day after suffering the injury, only to head to the training room at Delle Donne's behest after she noticed Toliver was limping.
"It's been hard just to be away from the game," she said. "That's when I'm at my happiest, when I get to play basketball. So, it's been a challenge."
Toliver, 32, described some of the worst moments of her rehab like the 8 a.m. hyperbaric chamber sessions and the fact she couldn't jump until last week. And though she is back on the court, she still has a ways to go.
The biggest hurdles for Toliver to still overcome involve next-day soreness, playing herself back into game shape and dealing with a brace on her right knee. She wasn't thrilled about being prescribed the brace but will set her comfort aside if it means getting back into the lineup.
The Mystics have a few more days off before they pick back up on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals. As for whether she will be ready to return for that game, Toliver isn't certain yet. But she is definitely close.
"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I'm not quite there yet," she said.
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