Bringing it home: Washington Mystics earn first WNBA crown

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Elena Delle Donne felt cursed. Every time she made it to the game’s biggest stage, she was hindered by injuries.

This time around it was three herniated disks in her back. The league’s MVP wouldn’t let that keep her from her first WNBA championship.

Emma Meesseman scored 22 points and Delle Donne added 21 to help the Washington Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun 89-78 on Thursday night in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the Finals.

“Every time I get the Finals, something happens,” Delle Donne said. “I think I pissed the basketball gods off when I decided to step away (in college). I hope this ends the drama that I’m having in the Finals.”

It was the first title in franchise history.

“It feels phenomenal, my goodness, feels so good. Hard to put it into words,” said Delle Donne, who fell short in two previous Finals appearances. “To win it with such a great group of people. We wanted to win it for the person next to us. We’ll remember this season. I’m kind of sad the season’s about to be over. My goodness, we sure ended this on a high note.”

It was a fitting conclusion to an entertaining series and WNBA season. This was the seventh series in league history that had gone to a deciding Game 5, and the home team has won five of them.

Delle Donne scored four points during a decisive 8-0 run that gave the Mystics an 80-72 lead with under three minutes left. But it was Meesseman, the soft-spoken Belgian who unveiled a new, aggressive “Playoff Emma” persona during the title run, who was named MVP of the Finals.

Meesseman missed last season while playing with the Belgian national team.

“I don’t think I’m the missing piece. I’m their teammate (and did what) I need to do help my team win a championship. This is my family right here,” she said.

Delle Donne, a seven-year veteran and two-time MVP, came to Washington three years ago in a trade from Chicago, hoping to get the Mystics their first title. She grew up about an hour from the city in Delaware and wanted to be closer to home.

Delle Donne sat out a year in college when she transferred in the summer before her freshman season from UConn to Delaware to be closer to her sister Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy.

“Lizzie has been my journey, and some people have never understood my decisions. Others have. But she’s been my path, and somehow she’s gotten me to this moment,” Delle Donne said. “You know, it’s been a crazy journey. It’s been my own path. It’s been different from everyone else’s. I’ve just kind of believed in it, and you’ve got to follow your heart, and I’ve always trusted in her. Another reason I can battle through injury is like she’s been dealt the worst cards possible with her disabilities, and every day she gets up, she smiles, she laughs, she loves. So she’s always just been my inspiration.”

Delle Donne has battled injuries and illnesses all season, breaking her nose early in the year. She still wears a mask to protect it. She also wears a knee brace on her right knee after suffering a bone bruise in last year’s Finals.

Coach Mike Thibault earned his first WNBA championship. The league’s all-time winningest coach had reached the Finals three times in his career — twice with Connecticut — and last season with Washington, but fell short each time.

The game got off to a slow start with choppy play, but it picked up during a back-and-forth second half.

The Mystics trailed by nine midway through the third quarter before rallying within two at the end of the period. The teams traded the lead in the final period until Delle Donne hit a tough fadeaway midway through the quarter. After a Connecticut miss, Kristi Toliver — the only player on either team who had won a title before — drove down the lane and hit a beautiful finger-roll layup to give the Mystics a 76-72 lead.

Delle Donne added another basket, and Meesseman capped the run with a jumper.

“Emma went to work inside. Elena does what she does. You have to beat them by defending them. All the players stepped up in the fourth quarter when we needed it,” Thibault said.

Connecticut could only get within six points the rest of the way.

“They were just better down the stretch,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “Defensively, it wasn’t anything more than they were really physical. They were the physical team down the stretch when they needed it.”

Delle Donne got the final rebound and hugged her teammates at center court as the final buzzer sounded.

Jonquel Jones had 25 points for the Sun and Alyssa Thomas added 21 points and 12 rebounds.

Delle Donne said the team was aware that the only thing missing from its coach’s resume was the championship and was thrilled to help give him his first.

The two shared a long embrace at center court as confetti rained down after the game.

“I said I was very happy that I am one of the players and this team was able to bring him something that he hasn’t done yet,” Delle Donne said of their postgame celebration.

Meesseman got rolling when the Mystics desperately needed her, with Connecticut leading by nine. She scored 11 points in the third period on array of post moves and outside shots to get the Mystics within 64-62 heading into the final quarter.

Meesseman said her motivation was simple.

″“The trophy,” she said. “It’s a championship game. That’s all I need. I’m just playing basketball. Today I just shot my shot.”

ALL RISE

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was in the crowd. Thibault met her once on a flight and the two struck became friendly. The Mystics visited the Supreme Court in June.

3-POINT STRUGGLES

After being the best 3-point shooting team during the season, the Mystics couldn’t hit many shots from behind the arc on Thursday night. They were 4-for-19.

TIP-INS

Game 5 held to form with the other four as the team that led after the first quarter went on to win. Washington led 23-20 after one period and Connecticut led by one at the half. … Mystics assistant coach Eric Thibault, Mike’s son, is getting married next weekend. … Connecticut lost in the Finals for the third time. They did it under Mike Thibault in 2004 and ’05.

Donovan Mitchell scores 25, Rudy Gobert has 22 and key late block, Jazz rally past Mavs

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Rudy Gobert had 22 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks to propel the surging Utah Jazz to a 112-107 come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

Donovan Mitchell scored 25 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 23 for the Jazz, who have won 14 of their last 15 games.

Luka Doncic scored 25 points for the Mavericks, who have dropped two of three after winning four straight. Doncic managed only two points in the final quarter.

Seth Curry added 19 points for Dallas.

Gobert’s three-point play — a dunk and a free throw — gave the Jazz their first lead since the first half at 96-95. The Mavericks responded with a 3 by Curry and two free throws from Delon Wright.

Gobert broke a 104-all tie with a tip-in, and after Tim Hardaway Jr. and Royce O’Neale exchanged 3-pointers, Gobert blocked what looked like an easy layup for Wright.

Mitchell made a pair of free throws, and then Gobert rebounded Doncic’s missed 3-pointer and was fouled. He made one of two free throws for the final margin.

The Mavericks raced to a 32-19 lead behind Doncic’s playmaking and shooting. The Jazz later scored 12 consecutive points and took a brief 37-36 lead on Georges Niang’s 3-pointer.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 15 points and Hardaway and Wright each chipped in 11 for Dallas.

Portland’s struggles do not have Damian Lillard pushing for trade, “I can weather the storm”

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Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere.

The Trail Blazers are 19-27, sitting as the unexpected 11 seed in the West, and there calls from some quarters of the Pacific Northwest for Portland to do something drastic to try and salvage the season. Too often, those calls are followed by “what if Lillard decides this isn’t working and pushes for a trade?”

It’s not going down that way. Not according to Lillard.

In a league where it’s become commonplace for superstars to use their leverage — either to get traded or to force the team to make bold moves they want — Lillard remains loyal and trusts the front office in Portland. He realizes what this season has become for the Trail Blazers and he wants the franchise to think about next season, not desperation moves to save this one. Here is what he told Jason Quick of The Athletic.

“That don’t have nothing to do with my commitment to the team,” Lillard said. “I mean, it’s not like we are going to do something that is going to take us to the championship at this point. I think it’s more important for us to protect the assets we have, the guys who are going to be here and who are going to help us going forward. I don’t think it makes sense to sacrifice that just to make a desperate play.

“It’s been a tough season, but the season is not over. We can make something of this season as we are, but it’s not worth, you know, saying ‘OK, let’s force something and go do something that at the end of the day doesn’t make sense.’ But that has nothing to do with my commitment. I said it after last game (Golden State): I feel like I can find a way. I can weather the storm. I can go through hard times.”

He also has made clear he isn’t going to push GM Neil Olshay to make specific trades.

Lillard is averaging 28.3 points and 7.6 assists per game, he scored 108 points in his last two games, and he’s playing at an All-NBA level again. He remains one of the game’s top guards and a player the Trail Blazers can build a contender around. His five-year max contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

Portland’s challenge is this: Lillard is 29 and in his prime. If they are going to win a title with him that has to happen sooner rather than later. Portland should not make desperation moves to salvage this season — getting Jusuf Nurkic back in the next few weeks could turn things around without a trade — but even looking ahead: If they are fully healthy next season are they on the level of the Lakers or Clippers? To my eyes, no. Then the question becomes what needs to be done to get there? If it’s time for something bold, should they test the trade market for CJ McCollum?

The Trail Blazers have some big questions to answer after this season.

The thing they don’t need to worry about is Lillard.

 

 

Dion Waiters debuts, nearly keys Heat comeback vs. Clippers (video)

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Dion Waiters‘ season entering Friday:

  • Suspensions: Three
  • Instagram posts offensive to the Heat: Two
  • Games played: Zero

However, due to a rash of injuries on the Heat, Waiters finally escaped the doghouse and actually played against the Clippers last night.

He played a little in the first half then started the fourth quarter with Miami down 16. In the final minute, Waiters even twice blocked Lou Williams on the same possession then made a 3-pointer on the other end to cut L.A.’s lead to three.

But the Clippers held on for a 122-117 victory.

Waiters finished with 14 points, including 4-of-9 3-point shooting, in 18 minutes.

Kings demote Buddy Hield, start Bogdan Bogdanovic

Buddy Hield
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Even for a franchise accustomed to misery, the Kings hit this season’s rock bottom Wednesday. Sacramento lost by 22 to the Pistons, who were missing Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown. It was the Kings’ sixth straight loss.

So, Sacramento made a big change last night – starting Bogdan Bogdanovic over Buddy Hield at shooting guard.

The adjustment worked beautifully. The Kings beat the Bulls, 98-81. The starting lineup outscored Chicago by seven points. Hield scored 21 points, shooting 2-for-3 on 2-pointers and 5-for-9 on 3-pointers, and grabbed eight rebounds.

Not every game will be against the lowly Bulls. But it’s not as if Sacramento had been beating anyone.

Kings coach Luke Walton, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“There’s nothing permanent with it, it’s not a punishment to Buddy at all,” Walton added. “Buddy’s been great and we expect him to be great for us tonight. But we’ve got to keep looking for something that works for us.”

“He’ll be fine,” Walton said. “Buddy’s a professional and he knows how we feel about him. Again, this is not a punishment towards him, we’re just looking at trying to mix some things up, try to give ourselves a little juice and find a way to win a game in this stretch that we’re in right now.”

Hield, via Ham:

“You’ve got to come in, be ready and when coach call your number, go out there and hoop,” Hield told Grant Napear on the NBC Sports California telecast following the Kings’ 98-81 win.

“Today I was just locked in and more confident,” Hield said. “I’m just trying to be myself and do what I do best, which is score the basketball.”

Hield has underperformed this season, sometimes leading to tension. Good for him playing hard last night, and Walton was probably wise to downplay the move.

But a team benching a highly paid cornerstone is a big deal.

In order to balance lineups, teams don’t always start their five best players. But the best players usually start, because teams want to play their best players more. It’s generally better to spread that greater playing time over the full 48 minutes than a compressed period that begins several minutes into the game.

Last night, Sacramento treated Hield like a true reserve. He played just 23 minutes, down from 34 per game as a starter.

Maybe Hield will regain his confidence off the bench, return to the starting lineup and continue his momentum. That’d be great for the Kings, though it’d also maintain complications with Bogdanovic headed into restricted free agency this summer.

Sacramento has two talented shooting guards. That’s fine with Bogdanovic still on his first (though relatively high-paying) contract. It becomes more complicated when Bogdanovic receives his raise. The Kings might eventually have to choose between the two.

If nothing else, this lineup change shows not to take Hield’s once-exalted status in Sacramento for granted.