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Mystics preparing for the possibility of playing without Elena Delle Donne in Game 3

Mystics preparing for the possibility of playing without Elena Delle Donne in Game 3

The fate of the WNBA Finals will likely rest on Elena Delle Donne's back.

No, that statement is not a joke on her ability to carry the Washington Mystics to the franchise's first WNBA title. Rather, on how she recovers after being diagnosed with a small disc herniation in her lower back after Game 2. 

Throughout the season, Washington rewrote several records. They had the best offensive rating (113.2), the most wins by 20-plus points, and the most wins by 25-plus in WNBA history. In a single game they've made more 3-pointers than any other team has before. The offense shattered expectations on how the women's game can be played.

Now they face a nightmare as they are two games away from a championship against the Connecticut Sun. With the series tied 1-1, Delle Donne, the league's MVP, could be out for Game 3 and/or Games 4 and 5, however long the series goes. Her status is up in the air for the time being. Further status updates will be provided on Saturday, the day before Game 3. 

The Mystics history without Delle Donne is abysmal. Since 2017, Washington is 6-11 when she does not play, and 0-3 this year. This does not even include two losses where she got injured in the opening minutes (July 7 vs. Los Angeles and Game 2 vs. the Sun).

But just because she could be out for the remainder of this series does not mean Washington's shot at a title goes away with her. 

"We showed it earlier in the season when Kristi [Toliver] was out for over a month, and we’ll do it here again," Natasha Cloud said when discussing how deep the Mystics are without Delle Donne. 

They were an impressive 11-1 without Toliver at the end of the season. While Toliver is no Delle Donne, she was a vitally huge component of the Mystics' offense. There are so many other weapons this team can turn to. Cloud can take off from behind the three-point line. Ariel Atkins showed what she can do in Game 1. Toliver is Toliver, who also has a championship under her belt. 

But do you know who is another Delle Donne on the Mystics? Emma Meesseman, as said by her teammates. 

"It's fun to watch [Meesseman]," Cloud said back in September. "It's almost like you're looking at another Elena Delle Donne. They're both very similar in their play... to be able to have them in the starting lineup, it's like pick your poison."

Meesseman will fill in the void offensively. She did in Game 2, and has performed in every game of the playoffs thus far. Washington even showed how they can fight without Delle Donne with a 19-7 run in the second half on Tuesday against the Sun.

Head coach Mike Thibault isn't concerned too much about missing their franchise player, even though there are eery parallels from last year. There are plenty of areas he feels they can improve that can be a difference.

"It doesn't matter who's out there right now, do you want to make a defensive effort?" Thibault said he told his team at halftime of Game 2. "We came out and did that in the third quarter. We held them to 17 points in the third quarter, and we looked like our Mystics team defensively, but we couldn't sustain it to the end."

"We can make some adjustments defensively on a few things and just play better. I think it took us a while, mentally to adjust to Elena being out of the game," Thibault said. "Now we have four days to prepare for that possibility."

And that is what the focus is going to be for Washington as they prepare for the series to move to Connecticut - playing without Delle Donne assuming she is not able to go. If she can play, great. That will be a good problem for the Mystics to strategize around. 

But if she can't, they'll need to find an answer to slow down the 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones who had the first 32-point, 18-rebound game in WNBA playoffs history in Game 2. Using tight, person-on-person defense for a full 40 minutes instead of doing it in a spurt. Crashing the boards, finding loose balls all must be improved with or without Delle Donne. 

“We’ve worked on some big things on defense, like communicating more,” Meesseman told the Washington Post. “I think that’s the big thing for us, and be more physical, so I don’t think it really matters who’s on the court for that. Everybody has to be physical and take a step higher in everything we do on defense and rebounding.”

Thibault will have them prepared for an offense without their star player. That won't be an issue. He's taken two separate franchises to the WNBA Finals before. Unlike most teams in the WNBA, though, the Connecticut Sun will not keel over to the offensive prowess of the Mystics.

And for Washington to keep their championship aspirations, they'll have to win at least one of the two games in Connecticut. Game 3 is on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

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Scott Brooks on how journeyman veterans like Ish Smith can be leaders by example

Scott Brooks on how journeyman veterans like Ish Smith can be leaders by example

WASHINGTON -- When identifying leaders from an outside perspective, it is only natural to look at the Washington Wizards and see Bradley Beal and John Wall, their two All-Star guards. Logic would suggest they set the tone for younger, less experienced players, that they are the ones the rookies should look up to.

But Wizards head coach Scott Brooks sees similar value in less-heralded members of his team, the journeyman veterans to whom nothing has been given. Guys like Ish Smith and Gary Payton II have bounced around the league to varying degrees. In Payton's case, that has included extended time in the G-League.

Brooks has been tasked with creating an environment for the Wizards that is conducive to the development of young players and he believes those types of veterans set an important example.

"If you're really good, you have two or three All-Stars on your team," Brooks said. "But the league is made up of guys like Ish. His story can help the younger guys make it and stay in the league. It's what the league is about. He has the grit, the fiber, the substance and the experience to share with all the players who are trying to make it."

Brooks has used similar language to describe Payton II, who was first signed by the team to a 10-day contract last season. He was let go, then returned this past December and then had his contract guaranteed for the rest of the season earlier this month.

"He's fought and he's been cut many times and sometimes those are the guys you want in your program because they have that fiber, that toughness and that anger because they know that it can go away," Brooks said.

Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard has said on several occasions they want Brooks to install a culture and mindset with their young roster similar to the one he helped build in Oklahoma City. Smith happens to remind Brooks of one of his former players with the Thunder.

"I love guys on a team like Ish. We kind of had that guy with Nick Collison [in OKC], just a winning player on and off the court. Ish is the same way. I look at Ish the same exact way," Brooks said.

Collison averaged a modest 5.9 points in 14 NBA seasons, but was so respected for his leadership role that his jersey number was retired by the Thunder last year. 

There is another person guys like Smith and Payton II remind Brooks of and that is himself. Before he became a coach, he was a 10-year NBA player. And he carved out that career as an undrafted, undersized point guard.

He was constantly fighting for his NBA future on the fringe of rosters and was able to stick around only because of his hard work and toughness.

Though he played with some great teammates like Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, Brooks likes to think he left his own mark.

"I always took pride in having a relationship with the best player to the, well, myself; the worst player," he said.

"This game, it's a family and it's fun and it's about relationships; empowering and inspiring one another. You don't have to be a star player to do that. I've had great conversations with Olajuwon. I've had great conversations with players that only play on a 10-day or a year in the league. I took pride in it and I think Ish does the same thing. I think it's pretty important that we all are blessed and honored to be in the league, that now it's your job to leave your situation better than when you started it. We have a couple of guys on our team that can really carry on what we want our team to be about."

Ultimately, though, the Wizards' young players have to put in the necessary work to reach their potential. Brooks can teach them lessons directly and guys like Smith can do so indirectly.

But the players themselves have to understand the message.

"Now it's up to the younger players to listen to it. It's one thing to listen to John and Brad, but there's a great chance you're not going to be as good as John or Brad. There's a chance you're going to be a player like Ish," Brooks said.

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Mystics unveil 2020 schedule, featuring the first-ever Commissioner's Cup

Mystics unveil 2020 schedule, featuring the first-ever Commissioner's Cup

The Washington Mystics and the WNBA have announced their schedules for the 2020 season.

Expanded to 36 games for the first time in the league's history, each team will have an additional home and away contest on the year. As defending WNBA Champions, the Mystics will play the WNBA's first nationally televised game of the season at home on May 16 against the Los Angeles Sparks on ESPN. Other teams will open their season on May. 15 and May 17. 

It will be the first of four Mystics games that will be broadcast across the country. They also host the Storm on June 2 (ESPN2), the Sun on June 28 (ESPN2) and Sept. 20 (ABC) - all of which are at home. 

The schedule also includes a full month off for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics from July 13 - Aug. 13. After the athletes return stateside, the WNBA will host the inaugural Commissioner's Cup which will feature the top two teams from each conference based on conference record. The Commissioner's Cup is a new addition to the league in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement. 

WASHINGTON MYSTICS 2020 SCHEDULE

May 16: Los Angeles Sparks at Mystics - 4:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
May 20: Mystics at Indiana Fever - 7:00 p.m. ET
May 22: Mystics at Atlanta Dream - 7:00 p.m. ET
May 29: Mystics at Seattle Storm - 10:00 p.m. ET
May 31: Mystics at Phoenix Mercury - 6:00 p.m. ET

June 2: Seattle Storm at Mystics - 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
June 5: Indiana Fever at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET

June 7: Mystics at Chicago Sky - 6:00 p.m. ET
June 9: New York Liberty at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET
June 11: Atlanta Dream at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET
June 14: Chicago Sky at Mystics - 3:00 p.m ET

June 17: Mystics at Chicago Sky - 8:00 p.m. ET
June 23: Mystics at Minnesota Lynx - 8:00 p.m ET
June 25: Mystics at Indiana Fever - 7:00 p.m. ET
June 28: Connecticut Sun at Mystics - 3:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

July 3: Mystics at Atlanta Dream - 7:00 p.m. ET
July 5: Mystics at Connecticut Sun - 3:00 p.m. ET
July 6: Mystics at New York Liberty - 7:00 p.m. ET
July 8: New York Liberty at Mystics - 11:30 a.m. ET (Capital One Arena)
July 10: Minnesota Lynx at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET

July 13 - Aug. 13: Olympic Break

Aug. 14: Commissioner's Cup

Aug. 16: Atlanta Dream at Mystics - 3:00 p.m. ET
Aug. 18: Mystics at Dallas Wings - 8:00 p.m. ET
Aug. 21: Las Vegas Aces at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET
Aug. 23: Los Angeles Sparks at Mystics - 3:00 p.m. ET
Aug. 25: Phoenix Mercury at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET
Aug. 28: Dallas Wings at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET

Aug. 30: Mystics at Dallas Wings - 4:00 p.m. ET

Sept. 1: Mystics at Las Vegas Aces - 10:00 p.m ET
Sept. 3: Mystics at Los Angeles Sparks - 10:30 p.m. ET
Sept. 6: Mystics at Phoenix Mercury - 3:00 p.m. ET
Sept. 8: Mystics at Seattle Storm - 10:00 p.m. ET
Sept. 11: Minnesota Lynx at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET
Sept. 13: Indiana Fever at Mystics - 3:00 p.m. ET

Sept. 16: Mystics at New York Liberty - 7:00 p.m. ET
Sept. 18: Los Vegas Aces at Mystics - 7:00 p.m. ET
Sept. 20: Connecticut Sun at Mystics - 3:00 p.m. ET (ABC)

In addition to the rematch of the 2019 WNBA Finals on June 28 and Sept. 20, the Sun and the Mystics will square off in Connecticut on July 5.

After a contentious WNBA Semifinals matchup with the Las Vegas Aces, the two will play on Aug. 21, Sept. 1 and 18. Liz Cambage's "get in the weight room" comment electrified an already competitive series and became a memorable one on and off the court. 

There is one back-to-back on the docket on July 5 and 6. It will also be a part of three road games in four days at the beginning of July. 

All home games will be at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C. except for July 8's game against the New York Liberty. That contest will be in their old home confines of Capital One Arena.

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