Healthy at last, Mystics show what they can do in win over Lynx

Shortly before the Washington Mystics hosted the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday night, the public address announcer delivered what’s typically an innocuous message. She drew fans’ attention to the injury report on the video boards, as she does every game at Entertainment and Sports Arena.

But this time, the crowd roared — not a single name appeared on the Mystics’ side of the graphic. Point guard Natasha Cloud skipped around the court, pumping her fist and wearing a toothy grin. For the first time since early June, Washington was completely healthy.

And the Mystics certainly looked that way as they cruised past the Lynx, 83-72, in a game with significant playoff implications. The win doubled as a celebration of the roster that General Manager Mike Thibault and Coach Eric Thibault had envisioned — other than the July trade of Amanda Zahui B. for Queen Egbo.

“It was just a really dope moment,” Cloud said. “We’ve been through f—ing hell. It was a rough month and a half [of] playing down numbers, playing crazy lineups, having to adjust in a lot of minutes. So just to have everyone back [when] we’re making this playoff push and we’re really starting to peak and putting some wins together, it’s …”

At this point, Cloud exhaled.

“It’s like the sweetest moment of the season for me right now,” she continued. “Tonight.”

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Elena Delle Donne, Shakira Austin, Ariel Atkins, Brittney Sykes and Cloud were the starting lineup, and Kristi Toliver returned from plantar fasciitis to play for the first time since June 16. Delle Donne, Austin, Atkins and Toliver remain on minutes restrictions; Toliver played four minutes, notching a rebound and an assist.

The victory let the Mystics (17-18) jump over the Lynx (17-19) for the WNBA’s fifth playoff spot. Minnesota dropped to No. 7, behind Atlanta (17-19), because of a tiebreaker. With five games remaining, the Mystics hold a half-game lead on both.

It’s huge,” Sykes said of the win. “No, seriously, it is really big. We don’t want to get too caught up in looking ahead or thinking about, ‘Oh, well, if these teams win, if we win it, if we lose, they lose’ — it’s literally controlling our controllables.”

Tuesday was a group effort from a team that finally had the band back together. Sykes continued her stellar play with 21 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Atkins (13 points) and Delle Donne (10) continued their post-injury comebacks, and Atkins (2,298 points) moved to No. 6 on the Mystics’ all-time scoring list, passing Emma Meesseman (2,290). Cloud, who is dealing with a non-covid-19 illness, had 12 points and nine assists, and Tianna Hawkins had nine points off the bench.

Outside of a cold second quarter, the Mystics controlled the game most of the way. The Lynx couldn’t overcome Washington scoring 26 points in the first quarter and 25 in the third (for a combined 51-33 scoring advantage); the Mystics shot 45.3 percent from the field overall and 12 for 25 (48 percent) from beyond the arc.

Minnesota’s Diamond Miller, the former Maryland star, tied a season high with 25 points, and Napheesa Collier chipped in 17 points and 10 rebounds. The Lynx never led by more than two.

“It was good to have options,” Eric Thibault said. “It feels a little choppy yet, kind of because I’m putting people in and yanking them out. We didn’t get a great rhythm, but we made some shots. Made some shots late in the clock, which was probably the difference in the game. We’ve been on the wrong end of a couple of those. We kept defending. I don’t know if we win this game earlier in the season.”

Here’s what else to know about the Mystics’ win:

Miller, the No. 2 draft pick, continued a spectacular rookie season. She entered as the league’s second-highest-scoring rookie at 11.7 points per game, trailing only Indiana’s Aliyah Boston (14.5), the top pick. Miller is expected to be the runner-up for rookie of the year honors, but what seemed to be a runaway at the all-star break has not been as clear-cut in the second half.

Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said Miller has grown beyond being in awe of certain players to having improved confidence, knowing she belongs and realizing how to compete.

I see a player that’s really excited to compete every time she plays,” Reeve said. “And she’s maintained that. It’s a roller-coaster ride for all rookies. She’s just handled that. Her temperament around that has been really solid.”

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The Maryland women’s basketball team, including former player Chloe Bibby, was in the arena, seated several rows behind the basket to support Miller and the other Terps on the court. The players leaped to their feet when Miller hit a jumper (that included an and-one) to start the second half.

Maryland Coach Brenda Frese participated in the halftime skills challenge with two children — shooting a layup, dribbling through obstacles, completing a pass into a net, knocking down a free throw and finishing with a layup on the other end. The free throws were her downfall.

The Mystics visit the WNBA-best Las Vegas Aces on Thursday, then play at Los Angeles on Sunday before visiting Phoenix next Tuesday. Their lone remaining home game is against Atlanta on Sept. 8.

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