June 4, 2021
How the Washington Mystics spent their mini-vacation
Despite not playing a game this week, the Mystics have been busy on and off the court
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The Washington Mystics didn’t play an official five-on-five game this week, but they have played a lot of four-on-four, three-on-three, and two-on-two.
“What we’re trying to do is break our offense and defense down into segments,” head coach Mike Thibault said on Monday, during a weeklong break in the Mystics’ schedule. “… We’re trying to get better with our spacing and our screening, trying to get better at understanding our priorities on offense and who should get the ball where. … This is a good week to correct a lot of little things you don’t get to do when you’re just preparing for games.”
The Mystics last played on Friday, May 28, losing a close game on the road to the Connecticut Sun, and will next host the Las Vegas Aces on Saturday, Jun. 5. Thibault admitted that he was not thrilled about the break when he first received the team’s schedule, but the timing for a “mini training camp” ended up being fortuitous. Not only are the Mystics trying to turn around a 2-4 start to the season and incorporate several players who arrived late from overseas, but they also had just seven players practice on Monday because of several injuries.
“I think the biggest thing right now for us is our offensive spacing, just trying to find a rhythm within each other, know each and everybody’s strengths and weaknesses,” guard Shavonte Zellous said on Tuesday. “Also, just communicating better on the defensive end. So yeah, we are a little bit banged up, but that’s not going to stop the grind.”
Here’s a quick rundown of the injuries:
Sydney Wiese suffered a grade 3 ankle sprain in the loss to Connecticut and hasn’t practiced since. She has had ankle injuries before, so the Mystics are being cautious with her, but they expect her to return next week. “She feels pretty good right now, so we just want to make sure she’s completely strong before we put her back out there,” Thibault said on Thursday.
Tina Charles was kicked in the calf last week and experienced some swelling, so she was also held out of practice early this week but is expected to play against Las Vegas. Charles was tight-lipped about the injury on Thursday—“Everything’s fine,” she said—but Thibault indicated that she may not be 100% healthy for Saturday’s game.
Elena Delle Donne still has yet to practice with the team and is only doing individual workouts after having a second back surgery in December. Thibault had expressed hope during training camp that she might miss only 3-6 games, but on Monday, he said that he doesn’t expect her to practice with the team “in the near future,” which would be a prerequisite for playing in a game.
By Saturday, Thibault hopes the Mystics show a better understanding of what their advantages are and where to be on the court.
“My hope is that our team has a better understanding of spacing, especially against teams that are so big like [the Aces] are,” he said on Thursday. “We have to kind of play to our advantage; we’re not going to win the height, physical war necessarily against them, but there’s things that we have that will be tough for them to defend. … For the last couple years, the way we built our team, we can’t crowd the floor. We can’t allow people to just guard us by crowding the paint. We have to draw defenders out of the paint, give ourselves some space to operate.”
Charles added that she hopes the team will have a strong third quarter and turn around their early-season struggles after halftime. The Mystics are shooting a league-worst 31.9% from the field in third quarters this season while allowing opponents to shoot 45.5%.
Despite not playing a game this week, then, the Mystics have been busy both on and off the court. Here are some other recent developments as the team prepares to return to action:
Player of the … oh, wait
Through Wednesday, Charles is leading the WNBA in scoring at 26.7 points per game, which is more than three full points better than the No. 2 scorer, Breanna Stewart. Starting with a matchup against her former team, the New York Liberty, Charles had a three-game streak of 30+ points from May 21-25. (Yes, she did it while playing three games in five days, which makes it extra impressive!) According to Mystics PR, only two players in WNBA history have ever had longer streaks of 30-point games.
“Every time I take the floor, I’m just trying to make a statement that I’m here, to not write me off,” Charles said on May 25. “… I just want to win a championship. I have more years behind me that I do ahead of me, so I take every game personal.”
Charles has also been much more than a scorer, averaging 8.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.7 steals per game to keep the Mystics afloat. Yet Charles wasn’t named WNBA Player of the Month for May, and she hasn’t won any Player of the Week honors this season. But Charles is not concerned with other people’s opinions of her because she knows what she has accomplished in her illustrious career and how much respect she commands on the court.
“I think everyone knows my game … I see it in the players’ faces across from me when they have to guard me, and that says enough for me,” she said. “I know the respect is there, so I have nothing to prove. … I’m always working on my game and the results are going to show, so just trying to collect some wins.”
It’s hard to keep up with Natasha Cloud
Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud sat out the 2020 WNBA season to fight for social justice, and teammate Ariel Atkins said that it took a minute for the team to readjust to Cloud’s blazing speed on the court.
Off the court, Cloud moves just as quickly: This week alone, she was a special guest analyst for a Washington Wizards playoff game; released a new “player’s edition” shoe in her line of basketball shoes with Converse; and is working to raise awareness of and prevent gun violence.
Cloud participated in NBC Sports Washington’s live pregame show on Monday, before the Wizards’ lone win in a 4-1 series loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, and most of her teammates also attended the game. Perhaps Cloud’s insight or the Mystics’ championship presence was a lucky charm…
Three days later, Cloud’s new shoe, called the “Petal to the Metal,” was released, making her the first WNBA player to have a player’s edition shoe from Converse. She said in the announcement that the pink, blue and green color scheme was chosen to “signify looking to new horizons, collective growth and regenerating oneself.” The shoe features a rose on each side to honor her wife, Aleshia Ocasio, as well as represent her own story as “A rose that flourished despite the odds.”
Cloud is also a leading voice behind Saturday’s Wear Orange game, which will raise awareness about gun violence and be co-hosted by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Cloud has led efforts to combat gun violence since 2019, when she organized a media blackout in response to several bullets striking a nearby elementary school. Since then, she has worn an orange Everytown for Gun Safety shirt during warmups to raise awareness. On Saturday, all Mystics players will warm up in orange shirts, and the Mystics will play a video in which Cloud speaks about eliminating gun violence.
Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!
On May 26, the Australian Olympic Committee named Mystics point guard Leilani Mitchell to its official roster for next month’s Tokyo Olympics. This will be the second straight Olympics for the 35-year-old, who is a dual citizen of Australia and the United States and has competed for Australia since 2014.
Mitchell hopes to lead Australia, currently the world’s No. 2 team, to a gold medal and “get some revenge” for a disappointing quarterfinal loss in 2016. The WNBA will break for the Olympics, but Mitchell may have to miss the Mystics’ final game before the break to join the national team for practices.
For Mitchell, wearing an Opals jersey carries added significance because of her late mother, Eleanor, who was born in Australia and died in 2009. “I was born and raised in America, but … I always wanted to move to Australia because that’s something she always wanted for us kids,” Mitchell said on Monday. “And I did that and, of course, fell in love with Australia. …
“It’s a great honor because I feel like not only am I representing myself and my family, but it’s something that I am very proud of because I know that my mom always wanted me to be in Australia, and I know that she’d be super proud as well.”
Mitchell is also a mother herself to 2-year-old son Kash, and several athletes in various sports who are mothers have expressed concern about the Olympic organizers’ plan to exclude spectators from foreign countries—including athletes’ children—due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tennis star Serena Williams, for example, said last month that she hadn’t been apart from her 3-year-old daughter Olympia for more than a day, “so that kind of answers the question” about whether Williams would compete in Tokyo without her family.
However, Mitchell is already half a world apart from Kash and her wife, Mikaela Dombkins, when she is playing in the WNBA, and she ultimately decided to compete in Tokyo even without her family present.
“Hearing the news that no international fans were going to be able to come, it kind of hits you. It’s like, ‘Oh, is it gonna be worth it?’” she said. “… It’s devastating, but at the same time, like I said, it’s such a big honor, and it’s always been a goal of mine to play in the Olympics.”
That’s not to say that the separation from her family has been easy. Mitchell said on Monday that motherhood is “the thing that brings me the most joy” and that being a full-time mother was a silver lining for her during Australia’s strict COVID-19 lockdowns in spring 2020. During the WNBA season, Mitchell and her family FaceTime and send videos back and forth, despite a significant time difference between Australia and the United States.
“It’s a struggle,” Mitchell said. “[Kash is] doing a lot better this year than last year when I left … [but] he just randomly cries at times, which obviously breaks your heart. … I know it’s hard on him, just as hard as it is on me, but we’ll get through it and I can’t wait to the day where we’re reunited.”
Other Mystics notes from the week
Forward Myisha Hines-Allen celebrated her 25th birthday on May 30.
Former Mystics players Stefanie Dolson and Kara Lawson were part of the USA 3×3 Women’s National Team that qualified for the Olympics on May 30. Dolson plays on the 3×3 team while Lawson is the 3×3 team’s coach/advisor. Thibault said he was thrilled to see the United States qualify for the inaugural Olympic 3×3 competition: “This was a new adventure and there was no guarantee that they were going to qualify … I’m happy for them. I’m excited for Kara. She did a terrific job.”
Elena Delle Donne released the sixth episode of her video series “Beyond the Game” on May 30. The series provides a behind-the-scenes look at Delle Donne’s recovery from offseason back surgery and her life off the court. The sixth episode includes a look at the Mystics’ Rebel edition jerseys (more on them below), a visit to a favorite brunch restaurant and a birthday party for her dog Wrigley.
Delle Donne also published a letter to her younger self to inspire LGBTQ+ athletes during Pride Month. “The passion, emotions, and inner thoughts that you worry make you different, are what will lead you to success,” she wrote in part. “… By being you and playing with pride your game will inspire others to celebrate their unique and greatest qualities.”
The Mystics will debut their Rebel edition jerseys for Saturday’s game. According to The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland, the jerseys are “an ode to gender, racial and LGBTQ+ equality movements” and include the text of the 19th Amendment “along piping that represents the paths of marches through the streets of D.C.”
On Jun. 1, former Mystic Kristi Toliver moved into seventh place all-time in the WNBA in career 3-pointers made with 607, passing Indiana Fever legend Tamika Catchings. (Lawson is ninth all-time with 584.)
Natalie Heavren contributed additional reporting.
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.