This Mystics team had flaws, but it also offers a lot of promise

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SEATTLE — After her comeback season ended, Elena Delle Donne quickly went from disappointed to congratulatory. She took her hands off her knees, stood up, and approached the opposing team’s four eternal stars one by one. She hugged Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, then Sue Bird, Tina Charles and Jewell Loyd before greeting everyone in the handshake line.

Delle Donne chose not to stay frozen in the moment, even after missing nearly two full seasons with excruciating back problems. As much as she recovered this season — as much as the Washington Mystics rebooted after two lost seasons while missing several key players — she wanted to move on. And for the first time in two years, it can approach an offseason without excessive caution before taking a new step.

The Mystics ran out of options Sunday afternoon at Climate Pledge Arena in a 97-84 loss to the Seattle Storm. But at the end of their 2022 campaign, they didn’t feel hopeless. They are, for now, done losing a first-round playoff that was closer and tenser than a two-game sweep would indicate. Overall, though, they may have restored a series of high-profile conflicts that injuries, roster shuffling and bad luck had derailed.

Mystics are no longer stuck in the past – the good and the bad. They’re not just trying to recapture their championship glory from 2019. And they’re not trying to heal from the wounds of the past two years. They move on, right there with Delle Donne, finally able to envision a future again.

“We fought hard,” guard Ariel Atkins said of the season. “I still think we have improved. I am proud of the trajectory of our team. I am very proud of the foundation we have here in the Mystics organization.

Playmaker Natasha Cloud, as only she can, articulated the direction of the franchise with the utmost intensity.

“I’m tired of talking about years gone by,” said Cloud, who led the Mystics with 21 points to go with six rebounds and five assists on Sunday. “I’m tired of talking about 2018, 2019. We’re in 2022 and we just lost in the first round. We are going to be better. That I can promise you. We are going to be better.

It’s a big deal that Mystics can focus on improving without crossing their fingers. A year ago, they finished 12-20 in a season in which Delle Donne and Alysha Clark barely spoke, and at one point only had six players available. In 2020, when the covid-19 pandemic forced the entire WNBA season to take place in a Florida bubble, Delle Donne, Cloud and Charles, then the Mystics’ prized free agent acquisition, did not play. Charles lasted two seasons in Washington and had no run with a healthy Delle Donne, who only played three games during that span.

This season was more like that. Delle Donne played in 25 of 36 regular season games and was available and thriving. The roster was different, and a team once blessed with exceptional skills is now a top defensive team that has frequent bouts of offensive difficulty. Despite all their determination and defensive power, the Mystics worked the other end and couldn’t match the Storm, who shot 55.6 percent from the field and made 12 of 23 three-pointers.

Washington hit 14 of 27 three-pointers, but in a quick game he wasn’t versatile enough on offense to take advantage of the way Seattle defended. The Storm changed their defensive philosophy beginning in Game 1, when Delle Donne scored 26 points. Seattle changed a lot on defense to give her a different look on the perimeter, then she came in with aggressive double teams when she was closer to the basket. He focused on stopping Cloud from going down and attacking the basket. The tradeoff was that Cloud made 5 of 8 three-pointers to lead the Mystics’ good perimeter shot. But even though they shot deep, the offense overall was disjointed and couldn’t keep pace with the balanced Storm, whose five starters scored between 12 and 21 points.

Sometimes you have to be able to win a shootout. With their season on the line, the Mystics lacked the firepower. For once, their best defense in the league didn’t have it, and they had no other way to win.

“If I had the answers, I would have corrected it for this team,” Delle Donne lamented.

Said Bird: “We made it pretty hard. It wasn’t an easy game, but we made just enough plays.

In a few days, when the Mystics can look back on the full season, they will see their offense as the area that needs improvement if they are to once again be a championship-caliber team. They managed a No. 5 seed with the imbalance, but with continuity and the right roster adjustments, it’s possible they could be a top three league team next season. It will not be easy, and it requires at least the same availability on the part of Delle Donne. But it is possible.

It had been a while since they had been able to dream of possibility.

“We need to have a situation where everyone on the field is honored defensively,” Thibault said. “I don’t claim to have answers for you at this time. We finished fifth, not first or second.

He knows better than to think in absolute terms. Undoubtedly, however, mystics have more than prayer to use now. The anticipation of continuing to build something new builds.

“The WNBA offseason feels like an eternity,” Thibault said of the wait until next year.

It will be easier to wait this time. Mystics have a clearer idea of ​​what they are and what they are not. In this transitional season, they have moved to a much better place.

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