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Proper lineup blend fuels winning Wizards' fourth-quarter finish

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USA Today Sports

Proper lineup blend fuels winning Wizards' fourth-quarter finish

With the Washington Wizards’ bench, it’s been less about the ingredients and more about the blend. In Saturday’s 116-110 win over the Miami Heat, head coach Scott Brooks discovered a flavorsome mix just in time.

The Wizards would never admit desperation, but their 2-9 record had them starving for success. For once on this three-game road trip, they were in the position to gobble up a needed victory without a huge rally. John Wall had 28 points and nine assists in 41 minutes. He joined four reserves for the start of the fourth quarter, including Jeff Green and Austin Rivers. Those three fueled the scrumptious finish.

The situation already tasted less bitter starting the fourth quarter compared to the previous two games on the road trip. The Wizards trailed the Heat entering the final 12 minutes, but only 85-83 compared to a 15-point hole Friday at Orlando and a nine-point deficit Tuesday against Dallas. Washington didn’t exactly secure momentum in third, but Miami failed to grab hold either. Winning for the third time in 12 games was indeed on the menu.

Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ian Mahinmi also walked onto the court opening the fourth. The Wizards took the lead for good at 86-85 on a successful drive from Rivers, who delivered his most potent game of the season with an aggressive 18 points. Wall sent a perfect alley-oop toss to a streaking Green for Washington’s subsequent basket and then scored the next four points with a mid-range jumper and two free throws. 

Starters Bradley Beal (18 points) and Dwight Howard (11 points, 16 rebounds) re-entered midway through the fourth and helped push the lead to 17. Green finished with 19 points. Another dunk off a Wall lob put Washington in control at 114-97. These Wizards have endured some wild moments, but they weren’t about to ruin this opportunity. For one of the rare times this season, the pieces fit. 

Having a starter on the court from the beginning of the period helped.

Despite consistent backfires, Brooks often deploys an all-bench lineup opening the even-numbered quarters (if not toward the end of the prior period), though more the second than the fourth. The four main components of that second unit – Green, Rivers Oubre Jr., and Tomas Satoransky – are legitimate pieces. Individually, each offers possible help. When joined together this season, results were bitter. 

While the fifth reserve/player rotated some games, the core four of Oubre, Green, Rivers, and Satoransky played together in the previous 11 games this season. Their net rating of -33.1 in 81 minutes was the worst of any four-man lineup in the league this season (min. 75 minutes).

Good signs were forming with the second unit throughout Saturday's game. Rivers, a lost soul for the opening 11 games with his new team, attacked the basket with purpose. Green sank his first seven field goal attempts. His 10 rebounds helped Washington win the battle of the boards for the first time this season. 

Mahinmi, who played Saturday after sitting out the previous three games, contributed in big man ways during the second quarter. Oubre finished with a team-best two steals. The first half efforts collectively did little to change the game.

Brooks went with the second unit including Satoransky (scoreless in six minutes) with 1:51 remaining in the first quarter and Miami leading 30-23. While the reserves avoided falling significantly further back as was the case in recent losses to Oklahoma City and Dallas, they didn’t make a push either. The margin stuck in the 8-12 range until the starters began tricking back in midway through the second quarter. That this served as a good result says plenty about the second unit’s work this season.

Having Wall on the court certainly helped. Deploying the five-time All-Star __ or for that matter, Beal, Porter or Morris __ with the reserves hasn’t been a staple. Some teams find success using all reserves. Orlando did in the first half of its 117-108 win Friday night. Washington hasn’t this year or last. 

This all-bench bad talk doesn’t mean shunning the reserves. Sitting Markieff Morris and Otto Porter for the entire fourth quarter in two consecutive games is notable, though ultimately seems circumstantial. Washington started strong at the beginning of both final periods and, as often the case when seeking a slump-busting win, the coach rode with momentum. 

Porter’s effectiveness exceeded his modest box score numbers of seven points in 23 minutes. Brooks went elsewhere late. He has options. It's just a matter of proper mixing and matching.

Using Wall 40-plus minutes on back-to-back nights is hardly ideal. Beal could undoubtedly serve as the lineup anchor, Porter, and Morris as well at times. When it comes to keeping a starter on the court always, the head coach ideally sticks with what worked Saturday when the Wizards cooked the Heat. That blend made for a delicious finish.

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Kristi Toliver is easing back from her injury, but she provided the spark in Game 1 for the Mystics

Kristi Toliver is easing back from her injury, but she provided the spark in Game 1 for the Mystics

Kristi Toliver had not seen in-game action in over a month heading into the WNBA Playoffs. Her extended time off did not stop her from hitting arguably one of the biggest shots for the Washington Mystics in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals. 

It was a classic Toliver step-back 3-pointer. The clock was winding down in a huge third quarter for the Mystics, the shot closely contested and the ballgame was tied.

Nothing but net.  

“Kristi had some Kristi moments,” Elena Delle Donne said postgame. “Thank God, where she just kind of carries us on her back and just plays so fearless.”

That bucket gave a struggling Mystics offense the final bolt of energy in a 97-95 victory over the Las Vegas Aces Tuesday night. Massive knee brace and all, Toliver's 3-pointer started a 19-6 run stretching deep into the fourth quarter. It jumpstarted the Mystics to the explosive firepower that had become the norm for the team throughout 2019. 

The Aces mounted a comeback, even had a chance at the game-tying basket. But Toliver’s three flipped the script on Washington’s slow start. 

The 11-year veteran checked in for the first time since Aug. 8 just over five minutes into the game. She had missed the final 11 regular-season games for Washington with a right knee injury. During that span, the team dominated the opposition going 10-1 without her. She missed essentially the last half of a record-breaking Mystics season. Most notably for her, she was out when the team set the all-time WNBA mark for made 3-pointers in a game against the Indiana Fever. 

With less than a week of practice, she had to prepare for biggest game of the season as her first one back. Five-on-five drills weren't even a thought until five days before the series was set to start.  Only Monday was when Mystics coach Mike Thibault made the decision that she would play.

Jumping right back in wasn’t the easiest transition for the seasoned Toliver. For the first time since 2014 Toliver was coming off of the bench and had to work herself back into a team playing in a rhythm never seen before in the WNBA. 

She missed her first four shots of Game 1. Part of the second unit, she had the tough defensive assignment against sharpshooter Kelsey Plum. Playing against the aggressive young star definitely forced Toliver to be engaged early. Plum had gone off for 10 points and helped the Aces jump up by seven at the break.

At halftime, Toliver was a minus-13 in the box score.

“I knew that there’ll be a little bit of rust and she struggled in the first half,” Thibault said. “I told her this morning, ‘you’re going to miss some shots. That’s going to happen. Even if you were at your top, you’re going to miss some.’ And so I thought her energy and her aggressiveness was better in the second half.”

In fact, her first made basket was the step-back three to end the third quarter.

Toliver finished the contest with eight points on a 3-for-8 shooting night with four assists. Off the bench, she played nearly 23 minutes, the most of any reserve. 

A good way for head coach Thibault to ease her back into the rotation.

“Coach did a good job as far as limiting my minutes so I would be able to be [at the end of quarters],” Toliver said postgame. “And we talked about it before that, we want me to be in at the end of games and quarters. Those are important times finishing halves and finishing quarters.”

Bringing Toliver back at the right pace is vitally important to this Mystics team. As the runner-up in the WNBA Finals last season, they had to go through the difficulty of playing without a 100% Delle Donne.

This year the pieces are still all in place, and more with Emma Meesseman. The team admirably has dealt with their starting point guard's absence. She's back now and her injury management is the biggest obstacle. 

Eventually, Toliver will likely be worked back into the starting lineup as the team’s primary ball-handler. Right now it’s just getting through recovery from Game 1 and making it to Thursday and Game 2. 

“[I feel] okay. I’m happy to have played in one. We’ll see how we feel tomorrow, with recovering and getting a lot of ice and treatment and all that. But this is the most I’ve played in five weeks so we’ll see tomorrow,” Toliver said. 

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A missed timeout baffles Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, helps Mystics hold on for Game 1 win

A missed timeout baffles Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, helps Mystics hold on for Game 1 win

Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer is hard to miss at 6-foot-11 with a booming voice that with its deep timber can level anyone standing within 100 feet. 

But as his underdog team pushed the ball up court in the frantic closing seconds of Tuesday’s WNBA semifinal game against the Mystics, Laimbeer might as well have been an invisible ghost. 

With Washington ahead 97-95, an Elena Delle Donne miss with 4.5 seconds to play gave the Aces a chance. Laimbeer wanted a timeout to set a play. He didn’t get it. He screamed again. No whistle. Maybe the roaring crowd at the Entertainment and Sports Arena drowned out Laimbeer's furious pleading. Whatever the case, referee Tiara Cruse didn’t grant it and Kelsey Plum’s rushed floater at the buzzer missed.

The favored Mystics, the top seed in the WNBA playoffs after a 26-8 regular season, held on for a win on a night when they were admittedly far from their best. The Aces were left pondering what might have been if they could have just set up a final a play. Washington took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series with Game 2 set for Thursday in the District. 

“I was right standing next to the referee by design. As soon as they missed a shot I was going to be yelling “Timeout! Timeout! Timeout!”,” Laimbeer said. “They missed the shot, we got the rebound. I yelled it five times and she even looked at me when I was yelling and made a conscious decision not to call a timeout.”

Laimbeer said he expected an investigation of some sort by the WNBA. He wasn’t as concerned with the non-call on Plum at the end. That’s a bang-bang play that could go either way and referees are reluctant to whistle anyway. But he also said the ESPN television broadcast will show without a doubt that he requested a timeout. It was a tough way to lose. 

“It’s unfortunate,” Laimbeer said. “It didn’t cost us the game. But it cost us a good shot.”

Even Mystics players like guard Kristi Toliver admitted they heard the timeout call and were surprised play wasn’t stopped. Las Vegas' players were thinking more about the possessions before the final one when they had chances to tie a game they played well enough to win.  

“I think it really just started not even with the non-foul call, but with us not calling a timeout and being aware in that situation,” Aces forward A’ja Wilson said. “It really just comes to that it wasn’t just that. It was the plays and the turnovers that we had and the rebounds that we missed all added up to that. We can’t really fault the refs. It really comes from us.”

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