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Mystics ‘Run it back,’ cap dominant season with first WNBA Championship

Mystics ‘Run it back,’ cap dominant season with first WNBA Championship

It started with acquiring a generational talent. Then, a push for a championship gave the team a taste at what they were capable of achieving. A slogan arose from the ashes of a championship loss: “Run it Back.” That slogan guided them throughout a dominant season that took no prisoners.

And that's how the Mystics story will go. For the first time in their history, the Washington Mystics are WNBA champions. 

Their quest for a title was not all smooth sailing, although the most efficient offense in WNBA history made it look like it at times. Three separate injuries hindered their superstar Elena Delle Donne. A jammed left knee (the same knee that suffered a brutal-looking fall in 2018), breaking her nose in the middle of the year, and a herniated disc in her back during the WNBA Finals all provided setbacks for the WNBA MVP. 

Former All-Star Emma Meesseman missed 11 games to play for the Belgian National Team, nearly a third of the season. Every Mystic had deemed her the "missing piece" from the 2018 runner-up squad. A Delle Donne-esque player that has the lethal ability to take over contests. She missed all of 2018, she missed a huge chunk of the beginning of the season. 

Veteran point guard Kristi Toliver was sidelined for the final month of the season. Natasha Cloud was essentially the only true point guard in the rotation for 10 games. 

You wouldn’t know it based on the Mystics relentless supremacy throughout the season. There were a WNBA-record 13 victories by 20 points or more and eight victories by at least 25 points (another record). An average win margin of 19.5 points had Washington coasting to a franchise-best 26-8 record.

And 19.5 doesn't even begin to tell the tale. They throttled the No. 2 team, the Connecticut Sun by 43 points, beat the Las Vegas Aces by 29.

Through the injuries, Delle Donne averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. She became a member of the elite 50-40-90 club, the first WNBA player to do so. Unsurprisingly, she won the WNBA MVP.

Without their Belgian forward, Washington went 7-4. 

Toliver, one of the best 3-point shooters in the WNBA’s history, was sidelined and the Mystics broke the record for most 3-pointers made in a game. 

No obstacle could stand in the team’s way.

That energy carried into the postseason as the No. 1 seed. Aside from a Liz Cambage-led Aces Game 3, the WNBA Semifinals was dominated by Washington. Dominated by Meesseman.

In the Finals, Delle Donne’s back could have slowed them down. It didn’t. And it certainly didn’t slow down Delle Donne from claiming her first title. 

Washington was built to win a championship, from Delle Donne on down. They have the best player in the league. Their starting five has no weak spot, littered with future All-Stars. Washington’s bench could all be starters elsewhere in the league. Instead, they stayed together and knew what this roster could accomplish.

For this season, the only thing that was on the minds of players was to ‘Run it Back.’ Nothing could stand in their way of achieving that goal. From Day 1 and for every subsequent day, that foresight was never lost. All their cards were on the table, Mike Thibault and his staff were not afraid to show it. 

Even facing a winner-take-all Game 5, Natasha Cloud had no doubt and guaranteed a championship. 

She's right. Straight facts.

The Mystics ran it back for their first WNBA championship. 

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Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

The Wizards are hosting the Spurs on Wednesday night, and these days that sentence isn't nearly as scary as it used to be. 

Tim Duncan is an assistant coach rather than a player, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are retired and Kawhi Leonard is a full two teams removed from his time playing for Gregg Popovich. 

San Antonio is reeling at the moment, dropping six straight games. If they lose in DC, it would be the longest losing streak the franchise has had since 1996-97, the season before they drafted Duncan. But that doesn't mean they won't represent a significant challenge. The Spurs are well-coached, fundamentally sound and are probably due for a win to get back on track.

The Wizards play the Spurs on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

They rank fifth in offensive efficiency and 26th in defense, which is surprising given their tendency to take too many mid-range jumpers and stifling batch of guards. On both ends of the floor, the Spurs are going to test the Wizards' fundamentals. That might yield fine results on offense for Washington, but the defensive end could be an ugly scene. 

Here are two stars to watch on the San Antonio side that the Wizards will have to be wary of if they're going to secure their fourth win of the year. 

Dejounte Murray

Murray's numbers won't bounce off your screen, but he's a bonafide stud Bradley Beal might have to deal with throughout the night. He made the NBA's All-Defensive First-Team two seasons ago as a 21-year-old but missed last season due to a knee injury. 

His defensive acumen and athleticism are still with him, and he might just be the best perimeter defender in the NBA not named Marcus Smart or Kawhi Leonard. If Beal is going to keep up the same level of production we've seen over the last week, he'll have to get there while dealing with an immense amount of ball pressure.

Offensively, Murray isn't much of a threat from the outside but he makes up for it with his explosiveness toward the rim. The Wizards defense has struggled with breakdowns created off of dribble penetration, so there's a good chance Popovich looks to create open looks off of Murray's drives. 

LaMarcus Aldridge

Moe Wagner won't be able to take as many charges against this big man. Aldridge, who's averaging 18.3 points on 52 percent shooting, does most of his damage in the mid-post area. Aldridge has more shot attempts from between the free-throw line area and the three-point line (62) than he does at the rim (41).

He has a multitude of moves and counters, but he doesn't get to the line much for a player who primarily plays inside the arc. For the Wizards to contain him, they'll have to play smart but remain physical with him on his catches. Don't let him get to his spot without working for it. 

Thomas Bryant and Wagner are more equipped to defend your traditional bully-ball big men like Joel Embiid or Andre Drummond. Guarding a player like Aldridge requires poise and self-control, which are not words typically used to describe the Wizards' interior defense. 

Between Murray's dribble penetration and elite perimeter defense and Aldridge's refined face-up game, the Spurs represent a major problem for the Wizards at this stage of the season. Washington's offense is for real, as they rank third in the NBA in efficiency, but the defense is the main reason they're 3-8. 

This game could go one of two ways. The Wizards can communicate more effectively on defense, defend with more connectivity and let their offense take care of the rest in a solid win, or they could continue to struggle and a fundamentally-sound team like the Spurs will blow the doors off of them in front of their home crowd. 

Tune in to NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday at 6 p.m. EST for all your Wizards coverage before tip-off at 7 p.m.

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2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year tracker: How does Rui Hachimura compare to Ja Morant, other elite rookies?

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2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year tracker: How does Rui Hachimura compare to Ja Morant, other elite rookies?

When it became apparent that Zion Williamson's knee injury would keep him sidelined for the first month-and-a-half of the season, the Rookie of the Year race opened up substantially. 

Williamson was the heavy favorite to win before the year tipped off, and now a few surprising young players have earned themselves consideration. The top pick in this year's draft may reclaim the voter's favor once he returns in early December, but don't count these five players out. 

Obviously production will be valued over everything else. You don't want to disregard a player's stats if he's on a bad team, because usually, the best rookies are on bad teams. But this season is a little different, as we have two rookies both producing eye-popping numbers while being key contributors to a sure-fire playoff team. 

5. Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards

The Wizards received a fair amount of criticism for taking Hachimura ninth overall in June. His ceiling of a modern-day forward who could guard multiple positions, space the floor and attack mismatches is very enticing. However, questions about his shooting range, lateral quickness and strength inside had plenty of draft experts skeptical. 

So far, Hachimura has looked really good. His three-point stroke hasn't come along yet, but he's shooting 50 percent from the floor and currently ranks seventh among rookies in scoring.

His pull up jumper looks legit, he's far more mobile than he was given credit for, and once Hachimura learns how to finish through contact and figure out his spots on the floor, he's going to be dangerous screening for Bradley Beal. 

Stats as of 11/19: 27.7 mpg / 13.1 ppg / 1.7 apg / 5.5 rpg

4. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

The Heat currently hold the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, and much of their success can be credited to rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn.

Outside of Jimmy Butler, Miami doesn't have many ball-handlers who can create offense for themselves and their teammates. Herro has played with the ball in his hands a lot more than people expected coming out of Kentucky and hasn't really been phased by it. 

So far, he's displayed sneaky-good playmaking, exceptional shot-making and an impressive level of poise. What he lacks in size and length he makes up for in flat-out skill. 

Stats as of 11/19: 28.9 mpg / 13.3 ppg / 2.1 apg / 4.5 rpg

3. Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors

As a second-round pick out of Villanova, Paschall was brought to Golden State to learn from Draymond Green and hopefully develop into the two-way combo-forward this franchise first unleased on the NBA. 

But then Stephen Curry broke his hand, and with Klay Thompson out for the year as well, the Warriors needed immediate help scoring alongside D'Angelo Russell. 

Paschall, seemingly out of nowhere, took on that responsibility and is now averaging 16.7 points per game on 52 percent shooting. It's hard to expect Paschall to keep this up, but he'll have plenty of shots throughout the season. And if one thing is true about Jay Wright-coached players, is that they simply know how to play good basketball. 

Stats as of 11/19: 31.1 mpg / 16.7 ppg / 1.3 apg / 4.8 rpg

2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

Nunn has been the NBA's biggest surprise so far this season. He was an undrafted free agent a year ago, spent last season with the Warriors G-League affiliate and was signed by the Heat this past April. He apparently made a good impression on the organization after dropping 40 points on them in the preseason. 

Once Nunn got his shot at NBA minutes, all he's done is score and help the Heat win. He's averaging 17.8 points, shooting 47 percent from the floor, 38 percent from three and is third among all rookies in NET rating who play at least 15 minutes a night. 

The Heat tend to find players like Nunn and they end up playing for a long time. We'll see if Nunn can take it to another level to become the favorite in the Rookie of the Year race. 

Stats as of 11/19: 30.7 mpg / 17.8 ppg / 3.2 apg / 2.5 rpg

1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

By far the most electric player in his rookie class so far, Morant is playing at a high level and he's still realizing his true powers at the point guard position. 

Williamson may have been the headliner of the 2019 NBA Draft, but the second pick that night is looking like a future All-Star. Morant is scoring 18.4 points, dishing out six assists per game and is shooting 47 percent from the floor and a very impressive 42 percent from three (11-26). 

It'll be difficult for Morant to hold onto the lead once Zion-palooza begins in December, but the Grizzlies must be thrilled with what they've seen out of their rookie guard. 

Stats as of 11/19: 27.2 mpg / 18.4 ppg / 6.0 apg / 3.3 rpg

ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN:

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
Coby White, Chicago Bulls
PJ Washington, Charlotte Hornets

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