Kristi Toliver returns, but Mystics prevail

DC's defense didn't defer to former hometown hero

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Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud (right) defends former teammate and Los Angeles Sparks point guard Kristi Toliver on Jun. 10, 2021, at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

WASHINGTON, DC – At tipoff on Thursday night in Washington, DC, it had been pouring rain for much of the afternoon—almost as if the universe was paying tribute to former Mystics star Kristi Toliver and her penchant for raining threes.

Now with the Los Angeles Sparks, Toliver played a game in the Entertainment and Sports Arena for the first time since 2019. In three seasons with the Mystics from 2017-19, Toliver won a WNBA championship, was named an All-Star twice and averaged 12.9 points and 4.4 assists per game on 43.9 percent shooting from the field. She returned to Los Angeles, where she played from 2010-16, as a free agent in 2020 but opted out of the season.

“It's great to be back,” Toliver, who is also a native of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and a Maryland graduate, said before the game. “I love this area. … I really look forward to seeing my old teammates, competing against them. … It's not going to be easy. But I'm just happy to be back in this building and see some fans and see friends and family.”

Toliver received a hearty round of applause when she was introduced in the starting lineup and a video tribute during a first-half timeout. However, she didn’t exit with a win, as the Sparks fell to the Mystics, 89-71, and Toliver had just three points on 1-of-4 shooting.

“That's my point guard forever and always,” Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud said after the game. “Kristi did so much for this organization, so much for me [in] the three years that she was here, and she's still that OG to me as a point guard in this league. … She did bring us a championship, and she played through a lot of injuries to bring us that championship, so I think DC should always be indebted to her.”

Before Thursday, the last time Toliver had played in the Entertainment and Sports Arena was Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, in which she and Cloud each scored 18 points to help the Mystics come out on top. This time around, Cloud and Toliver were matched up against each other for much of their time on the court, though the Mystics also switched some screens to try to keep Toliver from even catching the ball because of how dangerous of a shooter she is.

“One of our focuses was to keep Kristi out, not let her [have an] effect on the offensive end,” Cloud said. “… My job tonight was to make sure that I didn't let her get a shot off and I didn't let her get going, knowing that she would come back to DC and want to get a good game in.” 

Cloud certainly did that: Toliver canned a 3-pointer seven minutes into the game to give Mystics fans a fleeting sense of déjà vu, but that was it. And Cloud, who finished with eight points, five assists and four rebounds, answered with a three of her own early in the second quarter off of a give-and-go from behind the arc with center Tina Charles.

This season, the 34-year-old Toliver hasn’t scored as much as she has in previous seasons, averaging just 8.6 points per game on a career-low 5.8 field goal attempts per game. But she is more efficient than ever, shooting a career-high 52.2 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range. In back-to-back games earlier this month, she hit four of five 3-point attempts against Dallas and had a season-high 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting against Indiana. In short, she’s looked like her old self at times, just with a limited volume of shots.

“It's the same old me,” Toliver said before Thursday’s game, in response to a question about what Mystics fans should expect to see from her. “… I'm a 34-year-old vet and I am who I am.” She did note that she is still shaking off some rust after sitting out last season, but that “same old Toliver” is what got her circled in Sharpie on the Mystics’ scouting report.

Then-Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver shoots over Connecticut Sun forward Shekinna Stricklen in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sept. 29, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

It was only fitting that the 29-year-old Cloud, who learned from Toliver in DC and still counts her as a friend and mentor, aced the assignment. The rest of the team did, too, as the Mystics held Los Angeles’ three starting guards to a combined 7-for-28 from the field.

“Sometimes players just have bad nights, too; that's not a normal Kristi night,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault conceded after the game. “But I thought that our players were locked into really contesting their guards.”

The Mystics have been especially good defensively in the past two games after a players-only meeting on Monday. Over the full season, the Mystics rank in the top half of the league with a defensive rating of 99.5, and they are among the league’s four stingiest teams in opponents’ paint points, fast break points, points off turnovers and second-chance points. So they were hardly a bad defensive team to begin with. But in their past two games, the Mystics have a 92.1 defensive rating and have allowed a league-low 25.0 points in the paint.

“We were just focused,” Cloud said after Tuesday’s win over the Minnesota Lynx. “The attention to detail on the defensive end tonight was great, our ball pressure was great, our backside help was great … our switches in those roles [were] great. So all around, tonight was a great team win. That's the team that we can be consistently.”

The Mystics backed that up on Thursday, as it took until the fourth quarter for any Sparks player to score in double figures. (In contrast, Mystics guard Ariel Atkins scored 10 points in the first 8:25 and finished with a game-high 23.) “I thought we did as good of a job as we could with a quick turnaround coming from the last game,” Charles said of her team’s defense.

And that all goes back to Cloud, who called the team meeting along with Charles and is universally respected on the court and in the locker room. An All-Defensive Second Team selection in 2019, “she sees her identity first in defending another team's really good player,” Thibault said before Thursday’s game. When she locks in on defense and pushes the pace for the Mystics on offense, “the rest of it falls into place.”

On Tuesday, Cloud surpassed 1,000 career points, all of them scored in a Mystics uniform, and had 11 points, eight assists, six steals and one block. Four of those steals came against Lynx starting guards Kayla McBride and Layshia Clarendon, who combined for 11 of Minnesota’s 21 turnovers.

“With her being a leader and our point guard, we kind of look for her to set the tone,” guard Shavonte Zellous said of Cloud before Thursday’s game. “… Obviously, we needed a win … so I think [on Tuesday] Tash just came in with a whole different mindset of, I'm going to lead the way and the team [will] follow.

Up next, the Mystics will see whether the adage “defense travels” holds up, as they play the Atlanta Dream and former Mystic Tianna Hawkins on the road and then again at home. Another former teammate, Aerial Powers, is now with the Lynx, giving the Mystics four straight games against players from their 2019 championship team.

So while matchups between players and their former teams aren’t exactly rare, in some cases, they just hit different. That was certainly the case with Toliver, who is a local, started on the Mystics’ first-ever championship team and is a WNBA legend.

As Atkins said on Thursday night, “It's Kristi Toliver. I mean, we ain't even gotta—you know, it's Kristi Toliver.”