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Mystics take Game 2 and put Aces on brink of elimination

Mystics take Game 2 and put Aces on brink of elimination

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Mystics beat the Las Vegas Aces 103-91 in Game 2 of the WNBA Semifinals on Thursday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Before Thursday's game, as she was accepting her second WNBA MVP award, Elena Delle Donne explained how she had learned in the four years since winning her first MVP trophy the importance of making her teammates better. That approach paid off in Game 2, as the Aces' defense swarmed to limit her to just 14 points, well below her 19.5-point average, and to 33.3 percent shooting.

Delle Donne made sure she was effective in other ways. She grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked two shots and used her length to eliminate passing lanes. Though she wasn't making shots, she created space for others by drawing Las Vegas' tallest defenders to the perimeter.

Delle Donne wasn't the star of the box score, but her approach and execution were pivotal in a Mystics win, one that gave them a commanding 2-0 lead as the five-game series shifts to the desert.

2. What many on the Mystics predicted entering the playoffs has come true through two games that Emma Meesseman would be a major difference-maker after she missed last year's postseason run that ended with a loss in the Finals. After dropping 27 points with 10 rebounds in Game 1, she was back throwing haymakers in Game 2, posting 30 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Meesseman (6-foot-4) isn't nearly as big as Aces center Liz Cambage (6-foot-8), yet she attacked the lane consistently to look for her shot and to set up others. She had a play midway through the second quarter where she spun around Cambage and finished through contact with her right hand for an and-1. It got many fans out of their seats and some emphatic fist pumps from Wizards guard Bradley Beal who was sitting behind the basket.

Meesseman's toughness and craft are perfect for postseason basketball. She can score inside and out and is a disruptive defender despite not being a major rim protector.

3. The Aces' defensive adjustment after Game 1 was clearly to take away the three-point shot. The Mystics made 11 threes on 28 attempts on Tuesday, but by halftime on Thursday had only seven shots and two makes. Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud had a combined two attempts.

Washington missed their first three shots from long range to open the second half before Meesseman got one to fall. The Mystics finished 8-for-20 (40 percent) from the perimeter.

4. Meesseman's contributions were crucial and the same for LaToya Sanders, who played well above her regular season level on offense in Game 2. She had eight points in the first nine minutes of the first quarter, more than her season scoring average (6.1). She had 17 points with six rebounds and two steals by the time it was over.

Sanders' main priority is defense and has been tasked with checking Cambage so far in this series. But she can affects games on offense as well and the Aces paid for forgetting that. They left her open on midrange shots and long twos, banking on her to miss because she rarely even attempts threes. Sanders, though, knocked them down and gave the Mystics an unexpected lift.

5. It was only the second game back for guard Kristi Toliver, who is still sporting a leg brace after missing over a month due to a right knee contusion and MCL strain. Though she has practiced and is now back in-game action, it will naturally take time for her to find a rhythm and to get back into game shape.

In Game 2, she showed some rust by getting into early foul trouble. She picked up her third foul late in the second quarter after just eight minutes of action. That forced head coach Mike Thibault to go deeper into his bench and give Shatori Walker-Kimbrough some playing time. Walker-Kimbrough did not play at all in Game 1.

Toliver was able to get going later on and ended up with 10 points and three assists, including a three late in the third quarter where she turned and cupped her ear to the crowd before it swished through the net.

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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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