June 13, 2022
Frustration and quiet tension marked Tina Charles’ return to Washington
Mystics lament wasted offensive effort but hold Charles below her scoring average
WASHINGTON – Throughout the 2022 season, the Washington Mystics have raved about their team culture and chemistry, which they had sought to “reset” after a tough 2021 season. But on Sunday, those things couldn’t buoy the Mystics to a win. Missing Elena Delle Donne, who was resting her surgically repaired back, the Mystics instead needed some of the offense that center Tina Charles brought last season, when she led the WNBA with 23.4 points per game.
The Mystics fell to Charles and the visiting Phoenix Mercury 99-90 in overtime in Charles’ first visit to the Entertainment and Sports Arena since leaving the Mystics as a free agent. The Mystics squandered a six-point lead with four minutes remaining and made just two of eight shots in overtime. Charles was one of five Mercury players in double figures with 12 points on 6-of-16 shooting, plus eight rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block.
“This is the most frustrating [loss] of the year,” head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said postgame, citing the Mystics’ poor shot selection, 20 turnovers and failure to convert offensive rebounds into points. “[We had a] chance to be a good offensive team because we’re playing good defense for the most part, and we let them off the hook.”
The result was Charles hoisting Mercury teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith into the air after the buzzer sounded and the entire Phoenix team jumping up and down in celebration of just their fifth win in 13 games. Charles then quickly left the court without acknowledging any of her former teammates or coaches in Washington.
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Charles departing quietly and without fanfare was emblematic of the whole night for the 33-year-old veteran, who also played for Thibault in Connecticut from 2010-13 before coming to Washington in 2020. Thibault downplayed Charles’ return both before and after the game, and Phoenix denied requests to talk to Charles before and after the game. Charles greeted only a few former colleagues before the game — whereas another former Mystic, Shey Peddy, nearly jumped into Delle Donne’s lap to embrace her when Delle Donne was sitting on the Mystics’ bench during warmups.
The most affection Charles showed was arguably for point guard Natasha Cloud: When Charles ran onto the court for the Mercury’s pregame layup line, she paused and patted Cloud’s backside with both hands. She then gave Cloud a hug just before tip-off, whereas she only exchanged high fives with the other Mystics starters. Charles also embraced associate head coach Eric Thibault and wing Alysha Clark during warmups, but that was seemingly it for the night.
The atmosphere was markedly different from just a few weeks ago, when Mystics players and staff welcomed back Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP who is in her first season with the Chicago Sky, or from when former Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver made an emotional return to Washington with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2021. The fans did not cheer when the public address announcer named Charles as a starter, whereas Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi received a roar despite never playing for Washington. And there was no tribute video, which is something the Mystics have created and shown on the video board for former players such as Meesseman, Toliver and Aerial Powers.
The circumstances of Charles’ departure from the Mystics last offseason aren’t fully known, but she was clearly dissatisfied with the team’s 12-20 record in 2021 after coming to the Mystics to try to win her first WNBA championship. “I’m not going to express how I really feel. This is not the place,” she said after the team’s season-ending loss to the Minnesota Lynx. She ultimately decided to join Taurasi and a star-studded roster that had advanced to the WNBA Finals in 2021, and the Mystics moved on by adding Elizabeth Williams.
Brought back together on Sunday, the Mystics didn’t hype up the reunion, but they respected what Charles could do on the court and prepared for her. Charles was averaging 15.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists entering Sunday’s game, and as Atkins put it, “She finds ways to take over games. I mean, it’s Tina Charles.”
Thibault noted pregame that Charles is taking full advantage of her offensive versatility this season, from posting up to shooting threes. But, according to Mystics assistant coach Shelley Patterson, the team was particularly concerned about what Charles could do in pick-and-rolls with Taurasi:
“Whenever she’s involved with a Taurasi-Charles pick-and-roll situation, that’s problematic because if [her defender is] being dragged down guarding Taurasi, she’s going to pop back and hit a three. If you don’t get up on Taurasi, Taurasi’s going to get it. … We’re pretty good handling [Charles] down low … but it’s that two-man game. That’s pretty tough to defend.”
The Mystics elected to play Charles one-on-one, mostly with rookie center/forward Shakira Austin. “There was nothing special about it,” Thibault said postgame. “Put a good defender on her and try to make it hard for her to catch the ball.”
Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said postgame that she thought Charles and the other former Mystics on her team played with “a lot of motivation,” and Charles repeatedly attacked Austin, with mixed success. Charles made a driving hook shot on her team’s first possession and a layup six minutes later. In the third quarter, she made a pinpoint over-the-head pass to a cutting Brianna Turner.
However, early in the second quarter, Charles caught the ball behind the 3-point arc, started to make her move, and was called for traveling. She tossed the ball down in frustration but avoided picking up a technical foul. She also shot 0-for-7 from three in the game, including a miss from the top of the key with 56.1 seconds left in regulation and the game tied at 81.
Austin told The Next afterward that a few teammates had briefed her on Charles’ signature moves, but she mainly tried to push Charles out of the paint and not to let Charles use her strength to get deep post position. Atkins praised Austin’s defense postgame, and the entire Mystics defense seemed to improve at pushing Charles out as the game progressed. Charles’ first three makes were all from five feet or closer, but she didn’t even attempt a shot that close the entire second half.
Defensively, Charles guarded at least five different Mystics in her nearly 39 minutes, including switching onto the smaller Clark multiple times. She got called for defensive three seconds early in the game and gave up a few offensive rebounds, but she also executed a well-timed trap with Taurasi to tie up Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in the second quarter. She recorded her 300th career steal soon afterward and forced Hines-Allen into a crucial travel with 2:23 left in the game and Phoenix down by two.
Another way that Charles impacted the game was by coaching her teammates. She wasn’t particularly animated on the Mercury bench, but she picked her spots. Megan Gustafson — another former Mystic — subbed in for Charles with 1:48 left in the first quarter, and after the period ended, Charles gestured for Gustafson to sit down and rest, then started instructing her. Charles pointed to the end of court where the Mercury were defending and used her own body to illustrate her point.
“She’s a vet. So at the end of the day, she understands how to explain the game,” Atkins said when asked what she missed about having Charles on the team.
Just as the game was frustrating for the Mystics, it was frustrating for Charles at times, too. Late in the second quarter, Charles got an offensive rebound over Austin and appeared to be fouled on the putback attempt. When the officials did not blow the whistle, Charles jumped up and down, grabbing her arm and shouting for a foul. She reacted similarly on her next shot attempt, this one a make that she thought should have been an and-one.
Charles and the Mystics will both get to channel their frustrations in a nationally televised rematch on Tuesday night. For Charles, a two-game road sweep of the Mystics might feel sweet after leaving on uncertain terms in the offseason, and the Mystics will want to right the ship.
“I don’t think they were better than us tonight,” Atkins said. “I think they outworked us tonight. And you don’t want that. That’s not a good feeling.”
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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.