May 6, 2021
Inside the Washington Mystics’ first scrimmage, and Tina Charles’ Mystics debut
Our reporter takes you into the WNBA reality of 2021
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Are you in a club?” Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault asked me on Wednesday’s pregame Zoom call, noting the loud music coming through his speakers.
“I’m here!” I said, turning my phone away from my face to reveal the Mystics’ home court in front of me. The blaring music was a Mystics special, filling the mostly fanless Entertainment and Sports Arena before the team’s scrimmage against the Atlanta Dream.
The Mystics lost, 87-80, but Thibault said before the game that winning was “not a priority” on this particular night. Instead, he wanted to practice the team’s game day routine for the first time and experiment with a “Rubik’s Cube” of player combinations.
The game day routine started earlier than usual for the Mystics, with COVID-19 testing in the morning and an earlier shootaround to accommodate extra cleaning protocols for the arena. There was also additional cleaning about 30 minutes before the game and at halftime as staffers mopped down the court and scrubbed the padding on the basket stanchions.
When I first entered the arena about an hour and 40 minutes before tipoff, the Mystics’ new 2019 championship banner hanging from the rafters immediately caught my eye, but I also noticed right away that the lower rows of seats were folded up along the length of the court, allowing for more distanced seating on the teams’ benches. The lower rows were still open along the baselines, but they were empty, with no fans allowed in attendance save for a few of the players’ friends and family.
As a result, there was no swag surfing on Wednesday night, no halftime performance or fan trivia, no Pax the panda roaming the concourse as part of his official mascot duties. When point guard Natasha Cloud got an early steal and triggered a picture-perfect fast break to make the score 17-6 in favor of Washington, the building didn’t shake with anticipation of what greatness would follow. When rookie guard Pre Stanley scored nine points in her only action in the final six minutes of the game, the stands didn’t groan as a crowd jumped to its feet and cheered.
“It felt more like the bubble than a pre-COVID, normal game,” forward Theresa Plaisance said. “We are still getting to the point where we’re trying to get fans in, and we’re trying to do everything the right way and making sure that we’re doing the protocol the right way … I don’t think that it felt like a normal game.”
Still, having any game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena felt like a harbinger of better days to come, of (vaccinated) fans selling out the arena like they so frequently did in 2019. The PA announcer’s voice boomed through the empty arena, and if I closed my eyes, I could imagine a capacity crowd to accompany his familiar refrain: “All right, DC, welcome to the floor…your Washington Mystics!”
Wednesday was my first in-person sports game since March 2020, and when someone asked me on Twitter how it felt, I replied that someone needed to pinch me because it felt like a dream. Of course, no one was close enough for that: media were socially distanced and masked, and we were given our own tables, power strips and wipes. We also got individual boxed meals, which felt like a huge luxury after 14 months of nearly exclusively cooking my own meals.
Although the lack of fans was the big giveaway that this was no normal game, the scrimmage felt more like a regular-season game than I had expected, mostly in small ways. The Mystics played their hype video for the 2021 season, which featured a heavy dose of stars Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen and Cloud. They wore their new white uniforms, which looked crisp with thin red and blue piping on the sides and player numbers on both front and back. And both teams were competitive even in a game that didn’t count, loudly cheering for their teammates and exhorting officials for calls.
The game got off to a good start for the Mystics, as Plaisance got a putback off of an offensive rebound and center Tina Charles—who was making her long-awaited debut for the Mystics after they acquired her in April 2019—hit an elbow jumper for the team’s first four points. A few minutes later, the Mystics established their largest lead of the game, 11 points, behind starters Cloud, Leilani Mitchell, Atkins, Plaisance and Charles.
Thibault then began to shuffle his Rubik’s Cube, bringing in guards Stella Johnson and Shavonte Zellous and forward G’mrice Davis within 50 seconds of one another. About a minute later, he had five reserves in the game, which meant that ten players got on the court within the first eight minutes. In addition to wanting to see players make open shots and play strong defense, Thibault said before the game that he was evaluating players’ ability to remember and apply the abridged scouting report his staff delivered on Atlanta’s plays and personnel.
All 13 players who were available eventually got in the game on Wednesday, and no player played more than 23 minutes. Charles was the standout with a game-high 18 points in 21 minutes, and rookie forward/center Jillian Alleyne was the only other Mystic in double figures with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
“It was a great first start for [Tina],” Thibault said postgame, praising her efficiency after she made eight of 15 shot attempts. “… When she got [one-on-one] coverage, she was able to score, and if she got doubled, she was able to find teammates.” Charles even passed out of a triple team on at least one occasion, though she is not likely to see that when the Mystics have a full roster available.
The Mystics were missing three players on Wednesday, as forwards Hines-Allen and Erica McCall are still playing overseas and Delle Donne is still recovering from offseason back surgery. But Delle Donne was in the arena and did some light individual work about an hour before the game, including stretching, one-legged balance exercises, set shooting and a few different moves and shot fakes in the low post. On the bench, she rose to her feet on several occasions to celebrate teammates’ 3-pointers, and she offered advice in huddles and to players individually throughout the game.
“She was giving me a lot of pointers about things [like] where she gets shots, where she gets her movement from and also defensively where my feet need to be,” Plaisance said after the game. “ … And she’s been extremely supportive and helpful throughout this entire training camp, doing everything to help me out as much as possible, and I’m just really grateful to have a superstar like her and being able to grow and learn with somebody like that.”
Thibault was ultimately disappointed with his team’s defense, which he called “just mediocre,” especially in transition, and ability to make open shots. The Mystics shot just 41% from the field and 23% from behind the arc for the game and were outscored 27-14 in the second quarter. “Part of it was about what I expected; some of it was a little bit disappointing,” he said. “… But I think we’ll get better as we go along.”
That assessment is pretty typical for any coach in an early-season game, and some people might even call it cliché. But I’ll take it as another welcome sign of normalcy as the 2021 WNBA season approaches.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.