- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2017

Winning consecutive double-elimination games only delivered the Washington Mystics a problem few in the WNBA want to deal with.

The reward for surviving the first two rounds in the league’s revamped playoff structure meant a date with the Minnesota Lynx, the WNBA’s gray-jerseyed version of the Golden State Warriors. Minnesota has been to the Finals five of the last six seasons. It has won the championship three times. The team has four Olympians on it, including league MVP Sylvia Fowles. This is what stood in front of the Mystics in Elena Delle Donne’s first postseason trip in Washington.

The result was not surprising. Washington was swept. The end came in Sunday’s 81-70 home loss in Game 3 of the WNBA semifinals before sparse attendance on an NFL Sunday, plus competition from the Washington Nationals playing two miles away on national television Sunday night. Delle Donne scored 15 points. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt had 14, despite playing with an undisclosed injury. The depleted Mystics as a whole were devoid of enough firepower to deal with Minnesota.

“We have taken our first step,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “Hopefully, the next step will be a big leap, too, and that a year from now, we’re figuring out how to get farther in this.”

The same way that Golden State replaces an All-Star with an All-Star during its substitution rotations — Draymond Green for Kevin Durant, in its case — Minnesota is deploying similar talent swaps. Maya Moore, who led all scorers with 21 points, came off the floor at one point in the second quarter. On came Seimone Augustus, a fellow starter and a seven-time All-Star.

In her first season since being traded from Chicago to Washington, Delle Donne was not surrounded by that kind of upper-tier help. The Mystics’ second-leading scorer, Tayler Hill, has been out since mid-July because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Emma Meesseman had the worst shooting season of her career. Even if their roster was at optimum strength, beating Minnesota, which has won five consecutive games against the Mystics, would be difficult. How confident was the Lynx that it would end the series Sunday? Their game notes listed “next opponent: Los Angeles Sparks or Phoenix Mercury.” That will be in the Finals.

“I think we did pretty damn well with what was thrown our way,” Delle Donne said. “There were so many things this season where we could have just thrown-in the towel and said, ‘You know what? Next year we’ll work on it. We’ve had just too much adversity and we can’t get through it.’ That’s exactly the opposite of what this team did.”

The Mystics were in close contact by the half. They had handled Minnesota’s crop of stars, outside of Moore and Fowles. Those two scored 13 and 11, respectively, putting up 24 of the Lynx’s 38 first-half points. Balance kept the Mystics in step with those two.

Delle Donne scored nine points, Kristi Toliver and Ruffin-Pratt eight apiece. Washington led at halftime, 39-38. It was the Mystics’ second consecutive halftime lead in the series. That was a distinct change from Game 1 when it trailed by 15 points at the half.

Gaining that lead took extensive time. Minnesota controlled the first quarter, then most of the second. Tolliver’s field goal with 2:10 to play in the second quarter gave the Mystics their first lead of the night. It was meager, just 34-32, before expanding to 39-32 following a fastbreak layup from Tolliver, during which she was fouled. The seven-point lead inspired four of the Washington Wizards, Bradley Beal, Sheldon Mac, Tim Frazier and Kelly Oubre, to pop out of their courtside seats. Mac flexed both his arms in approval.

That vibe was undone out of halftime when Minnesota pushed out to a 10-point lead. Fowles powered in a layup with 4:18 remaining to expand the Lynx’s lead to 73-60. Delle Donne and the other starters left the floor for the final time with 1:20 to play and trailing by 14 points. Minnesota’s large pack of stars stood at the end of its bench. The Finals were coming again. Washington moved to the offseason wondering how to assemble and counter a roster like that.

“That’s the kind of team that sets the bar,” Toliver said. “That’s what the bar looks like.”

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