The Washington Mystics are the 2019 WNBA champions after defeating the Connecticut Sun, 89-78, in Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals on Thursday in front of their home fans at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C.
Here are five key takeaways from an outstanding conclusion to the 2019 WNBA season as the Mystics became the ninth franchise to win a WNBA title.
Game 5 Classic
Through four games, the 2019 Finals followed a similar pattern as one team took control early by building a double-digit first quarter lead, followed by the other team making a furious comeback, before the team that led early eventually holding on for the win.
Heading into Game 5, the teams were separated by a total of just six points (Washington 362, Connecticut 356), but there had only been 12 ties and six lead changes in the first four games combined.
Well Game 5 did not follow that same script as both teams came ready to battle from the opening tip and delivered the best game of an already entertaining and competitive series. Thursday’s winner-take-all affair featured 15 ties and nine lead changes and neither team led by double digits until Kristi Toliver’s free throws with less than 30 seconds to play provided the final score.
While the teams traded blows throughout the game, it was a 13-2 run by the Mystics over a four-minute stretch midway through the fourth quarter that proved to be the knockout.
06:44 [WAS 70-70] Cloud 3pt Shot: Made
06:26 [WAS 72-70] Cloud Cutting Layup Shot: Made
05:39 [CON 72-72] Williams Jump Shot: Made
05:10 [WAS 74-72] Delle Donne Turnaround Fadeaway Bank Jump Shot: Made
04:23 [WAS 76-72] Toliver Driving Finger Roll Layup Shot: Made
03:34 [WAS 78-72] Delle Donne Jump Shot: Made
02:54 [WAS 80-72] Meesseman Jump Shot: Made
Delle Donne Breaks Through
Elena Delle Donne entered her third WNBA Finals with an 0-6 record as her teams were on the wrong end of sweeps in both 2014 (with Chicago) and 2018 (with Washington). And to make matters worse, she played hurt in both of those series.
Delle Donne and the Mystics earned their first Finals win in Game 1, but just three minutes into Game 2, a nightmare scenario reared its ugly head as Delle Donne called to be subbed out of the game after aggravating a back injury that had been bothering her during the final month of the season.
She would not return to Game 2 and an MRI would reveal a disc herniation, which meant she would have to play the remainder of the series dealing with pain and discomfort as well as a lack of explosion and mobility. Just what you want for the biggest three games of your professional career.
In addition to the MVP’s back, the Mystics also had Kristi Toliver playing through a bone bruise and sprained MCL in her knee and Ariel Atkins dealing with back spasms of her own. But Delle Donne and the Mystics were not going to be denied this year. While their All-Stars played through the pain, the rest of their teammates helped lift them up as Washington’s depth played a major role in their success. Just take a look at their bench production as the Mystics’ reserves outscored the Sun reserves 167-55 over the course of five games.
After playing on the perimeter for nearly of her 26 minutes in Game 3 – her first game back from the injury – Delle Donne began to feel more and more comfortable over the final two games of the series. In Game 5, the Mystics were running the offense through her in the post as she was able to showcase the full breadth of her game rather than picking and choosing her spots during the previous two games. Delle Donne finished with 21 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two assists as she was on the court for 37 minutes.
Washington’s win caps of an incredible year for Delle Donne as she won her second league MVP award, became the first player in WNBA history to join the 50-40-90 club, led the Mystics to the league’s most efficient offense of all-time and captained an All-Star team for the second straight year. She became the fourth straight MVP winner to win the championship in the same season, following Nneka Ogwumike (2016), Sylvia Fowles (2017) and Breanna Stewart (2018).
After missing the entire 2018 season – and Washington’s first Finals appearance – while training with the Belgium National Team in preparation for the FIBA World Cup, Emma Meesseman returned to the Mystics for the 2019 season.
The fact that Washington made it to the Finals in 2018 without a player of Meesseman’s caliber created a narrative that she would be the “missing piece” – the player who would push the team over the top in 2019. While Meesseman downplays the “missing piece” idea, the end result sure looked like adding Meesseman back into this mix is just what the Mystics needed.
The Connecticut Sun simply did not have an answer for the 6-foot-4 forward armed with a silky smooth outside shot as well as the craftiness and footwork to create shots inside against multiple defenders. Over the five-game series, Meesseman averaged 17.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting an incredible 57.1 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Meesseman scored a team-high 22 points in the decisive Game 5, including 15 in the final 16 minutes as the Mystics overcame a nine-point third quarter deficit on their way to their 11-point win. It was Meesseman’s third 20-point game of the Finals and sixth in Washington’s nine Playoff games. That is after having just two 20-point games during the regular season.
She played just 23 regular season games as she missed 11 games in the middle of the season to return to Belgium and play with the National Team. Since Meesseman was going to leave the team and return in the middle of the season, Mystics coach Mike Thibault decided to bring her off the bench this season rather than having to make changes to his starting lineup to accommodate her departure and return.
That strategy worked to perfection as Meesseman led the league’s highest-scoring bench during the regular season and continued to be a difference-maker in the postseason. In fact, it was in Washington’s semifinal series with Las Vegas that the legend of Playoff Emma was born.
Meesseman had three 20-point performances in four games against the Aces, including a 22-point effort in the series-clinching Game 4 win. In that game, she scored 13 of her points in the fourth quarter as the Mystics rode her hot hand all the way to the Finals.
And in the championship-clinching Game 5, once again, Meesseman delivered when the Mystics needed her most. She began the second half on the bench and watched the Sun build their lead up to nine points with just over 16 minutes remaining in the season. Once she returned, Meesseman made six shots and three free throws as she scored 15 of Washington’s final 43 points.
After the final buzzer had sounded, the confetti fell to the court and the championship trophy was presented, Meesseman’s name was called as the winner of the Finals Most Valuable Player. A look of shock came to her face as her teammates mobbed her in celebration before she eventually made her way to the front to accept the award.
Meesseman and Thibault appeared together at the postgame press conference and as they sat at the podium beside one another, Thibault put his arm around Meesseman and simply said: “Wow. The missing piece.”
Thibault Completes Resume
Since entering the WNBA in 2003 as the head coach of the Connecticut Sun, Mike Thibault has built one of the greatest coaching resumes in league history.
Over 17 seasons, he has accumulated 336 wins (the most in league history), his teams have made the playoffs 14 times (the most in league history), he has been named Coach of the Year three times (tied for the most in league history with Van Chancellor) and he has made four trips to the WNBA Finals.
The first two came during his 10-year run in Connecticut, as he guided the Sun to the Finals in 2004 and 2005. However, his teams fell 2-1 to Seattle in 2004 (in the final year of the best-of-three format) and 3-1 to Sacramento in 2005.
Despite making the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons, Thibault was fired by the Sun following the 2012 season but was not out of work for long. He was hired as the head coach and general manager of the Washington Mystics in December 2012, taking over a team that had gone 11-57 in its previous two seasons.
Clearly he had his work cut out for him, but Thibault made an immediate impact. Washington made a 12-game improvement in his first season on the job, making the Playoffs with a 17-17 record. It was the first step in changing the culture of the Mystics and put them on the path toward championship contention and Thursday’s breakthrough.
“I didn’t have a number of years because I knew it would come in two stages,” Thibault said earlier this week. “The first one was to make us competitive and a playoff team and that’s what we did for the first few years. And then to this level you have to have some stars to play off of and it came together at the right time, the year that Elena was ready to move on was also a year that we made the playoffs but we had injuries and a draft pick that another team would be excited to have in a deal. That came together at the right time for us.”
“Kristi happened to be a free agent the same year. And once you get to that point you have to surround your star players with high-level players. They don’t necessarily have to be all-league players but we have some all-defensive players and some three-point shooters, and you piece it together like a puzzle. I didn’t have a timetable in place. I just knew you don’t have it handed to you. You have to go through some steps and the first step with this group was going to the semifinals and losing to Minnesota, which was a great team and won it. Learning from that and getting to the Finals last year and losing to a great team, and knowing what you have to do to get better and game plan in the offseason. That was the biggest thing for us.”
Thibault has long said that he didn’t need to win a championship to validate his career. When ESPN’s Holly Rowe mentioned that after the final buzzer on Thursday, Thibault laughed as he said: “It sure feels good though.”
The Connecticut Sun played with a collective chip on their shoulder throughout their 2019 Playoff run. The team felt it has been disrespected by WNBA analysts and pundits that called them “role players” and that they lacked the “mega-star” talent of other teams in the Playoffs.
When they beat the Los Angeles Sparks by 26 points in Game 2 of their Semifinal series, Courtney Williams looked right into the camera and said “Tell ‘em a bunch of role players did that!” to close her postgame interview before going to celebrate with her teammates.
After sweeping the Sparks and giving the Mystics everything they could handle in an epic five-game Finals, no one will see this Sun team as a bunch of role players any longer. That is for sure.
“I told them that they became household names in this series,” said Sun coach Curt Miller after Game 5. “Everyone is going to know their name now. And where we were considered a team without a mega-superstar, we were forced to trade a No. 1 overall draft pick weeks before the start of the season, and that locker room bonded together and said, nothing can derail us.
“So, they became legendary. They became household names. They were not considered megastars. Well, that locker room is filled with a bunch of megastars, and they proved that and everyone is going to know who they are for the rest of their careers.”
If 2019 was about earning respect, 2020 will be about finishing a job that they were so close to completing on Thursday. The Sun led by as many as nine points in the second half and took a two-point lead into the fourth quarter, but were unable to hold off a charging Mystics team.
The pain and disappointment that the Sun is feeling from Thursday’s loss is a feeling that the Mystics were already familiar with. Washington was on the wrong end of a sweep in the 2018 Finals and used that disappointment as fuel to “run it back” this season, return to the Finals and win the title.
“I think you see they were motivated,” said Miller. “They talked about ‘running it back’ was their campaign, and disappointed that they got swept last year. This is going to sting for a long time for our players, but it will also motivate that core group that’s back, that they know they can play championship-level basketball.
“I’ll go to war with that core group, with that team any day because I know they lay it on the line and they love each other, they care for each other. They want it for each other. There’s a bond in that locker room that is pretty special, and I think you need that in team sports in order to win.”
A trio of that core group – Jasmine Thomas, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones – followed Miller in the postgame press conference and in addition to questions about not winning Game 5, they also reflected on what they accomplished this season.
“I mean, I’m proud of us,” said Jasmine Thomas. “I think we asserted ourselves and wanted to make ourselves known in this league, not just as individuals but as a team. You know, we have taken pride in team basketball all season. We’re a close group. We really care about each other, and sitting next to these two women up here, with how hard they work and how special they are, they’re two of the most talented people I’ve ever played with. So it hurts that we couldn’t win this championship for them, but I think we’ll always remember this team. I think going forward, we know what we’re capable of. We know we can be back here, and we’re just — it hurts right now, but I think we’ve done — we have a lot to be proud of.”