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Kristi Toliver takes big step in rehab as she eyes return in WNBA playoffs

Kristi Toliver takes big step in rehab as she eyes return in WNBA playoffs

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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The Wizards offense and defense are on opposite ends of the efficiency spectrum

The Wizards offense and defense are on opposite ends of the efficiency spectrum

As good as the Wizards' offense has been through the first nine games of the 2019-20 regular season, their defense continues to prevent the team from putting multiple wins together. 

According to NBA Stats, the Wizards sport the league's sixth-best offense, scoring an impressive 110.3 points per 100 possessions, but rank 29th in defense. Compared to the other top-10 offenses in the NBA, the Wizards have the worst net rating at -4.4. 

For Washington to have a borderline elite offense and still post such a bad net rating, it speaks to just how bad their defense has been.

NBA Math charts team's standing in the league based on their offensive and defensive efficiencies and their latest graph depicts the Wizards' problems quite perfectly. 

According to the graphic, the Wizards have a better offense than teams like the Rockets, Lakers, Clippers and Raptors, who are all on track for deep playoff runs. 

However, their defense ranks below the likes of the Knicks, Hornets and Grizzlies. 

The silver lining here is the offense has been great and has more than enough weapons to keep up the production. Bradley Beal is putting up career scoring numbers despite uncharacteristically low shooting splits, Rui Hachimura continues to get better every day and Isaiah Thomas is showing more explosiveness on his drives. 

Defensive success in the NBA mostly comes from effort, so if the Wizards can turn it up a notch or two there they should be able to stay competitive with almost any team in the league.

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Marc Spears sees Rui Hachimura's impact stretching farther than on the court

Marc Spears sees Rui Hachimura's impact stretching farther than on the court

Hopes were high entering the season that Rui Hachimura could become a foundational piece for the Washington Wizards, and for the most part, he has lived up to all the hype. 

His impact on the court is undeniable for a struggling Wizards team. He's the third-leading scorer on the roster behind Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant at 14.4 points per game just nine games into his career, and he ranks top five among NBA rookies in points, field goal shooting and rebounds. 

Hachimura is not your average rookie, though. When the Wizards drafted him ninth overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, they were certainly adding a player with high upside and translatable skills, but his popularity in his home country of Japan has arguably made a bigger imprint on his time as a professional. 

Marc Spears, senior NBA writer at The Undefeated, joined Chris Miller and Gary Carter on the Wizards Talk Podcast to discuss the rookie's sizeable impact both on and off the court. 

"I love his game, I love his aggressiveness offensively," Spears said. "I think he's a good rebounder but could be a great rebounder, and the one thing I really like is the fact that, unlike a lot of the Japanese baseball players who get annoyed by it, he's embraced the media, he's embraced the Japanese media and wants to be a voice out there.

"And I think it's making him some money off the court because he's been so open-minded to it."

Hachimura has been on Spears' radar. Spears watched him live three times while the rookie was playing at Gonzaga last season and wrote a story about how Hachimura is trying to help multi-racial kids like himself. 

At one of the games where Gonzaga played Santa Clara in late January, Spears noticed a Japanese basketball league called San Jose Zebra in attendance.

"There were kids in that program who came to that game and were basically in awe of seeing somebody that was actually like them," Spears said. 

The Wizards' rebuild hinges on players like Hachimura developing into foundational pieces, but it's clear there's a bigger picture regarding the rookie's success. 

The better he gets, the more his star will grow both in the United States and in Japan. 

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