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.

Report: Pistons granted disabled-player exception for Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin
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The Pistons’ application for a Blake Griffin disabled-player exception?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The Pistons have hung in the playoff race. At 16-28, they’re in ninth place and three games out. Detroit had been vague about Griffin’s timeline.

But eliminates any reasonable hope of Griffin returning for a stretch run. An NBA-appointed doctor ruled Griffin is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15.

The Pistons get a $9,258,000 exception that can be used to acquire a player on the last year of his contract via trade, signing or waiver. Almost certainly unwilling to pay the luxury tax this season, Detroit currently has a payroll too high to take advantage. But if the Pistons trade someone like Andre Drummond, Derrick Rose or Langston Galloway, the exception could prove useful.

Nuggets: Mason Plumlee out at least 2-4 weeks

Mason Plumlee
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Mason Plumlee got hurt in the first half, underwent x-rays he said were negative then returned in the second half to help the Nuggets beat the Timberwolves on Monday.

But he and Denver will suffer a much bigger loss.

Nuggets release:

Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee has been diagnosed with a right cuboid injury and his status will be reevaluated in approximately two to four weeks.

The injury occurred during the Nuggets game at Minnesota on Monday, January 20th.

Obviously, this raises questions about whether Plumlee should have returned against Minnesota.

This is another key setback for Denver, which already has Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris sidelined.

The Nuggets (30-13) are locked in a high-stakes battle with the Clippers (31-13) and Jazz (30-13) for the Nos. 2-4 seeds in the Western Conference. The No. 2 seed would get home-court advantage in the second round and avoid the Lakers until the conference finals. The No. 3 seed would avoid the Lakers until the conference finals. The No. 4 seed would do neither.

Nikola Jokic is now Denver’s only healthy center. Expect Jerami Grant to play the position more often. He’s versatile enough to do it, and he can be effective there in certain matchups. But the Nuggets lose selectivity in when to deploy Grant at center, a lineup they were already reluctant to use.

Denver has played just 24 minutes all season with Grant on, Jokic and Plumlee off. (The Nuggets are a not-encouraging -11 in that time).

The trade deadline is just over two weeks away. Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez already looked like prime trade candidates. Could this push Denver toward moving one of those youngsters for immediate help? The Nuggets shouldn’t overreact to losing a backup center who should return well in advance of the playoffs. But they also don’t want to overburden Jokic/slip in the standings over the next month.

The All-Star break begins in three weeks. If Plumlee is still sidelined, that’ll at least give him longer to recover without missing games. But with the trade deadline looming, Denver has bigger decisions to make before then.

Report: Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald buys share of Phoenix Suns

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Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald sat in on the Phoenix Suns’ basketball-executive interviews last year.

Now, he’ll have a more formal role within the organization.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers bought a share of the Bucks in 2018.

The NBA reportedly mandates that all new minority owners buy at least a 1% share. Forbes’ last estimate valued the Suns at $1.5 billion. That’d put Fitzgerald’s minimum buy-in at $15 million.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he got in cheaper, though. Widely panned Suns owner Robert Sarver can boost his image by aligning himself with the well-liked football player. Having a local sports hero involved can also help with things like getting taxpayers to fund arena upgrades.

Three things to expect in Zion Williamson’s debut

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Finally.

At Summer League in Las Vegas, the Thomas and Mack was full but fans got just nine minutes of Zion Williamson, one half of basketball, before he was shut down following a knee-to-knee collision with another player. Zion was done for the summer as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Preseason saw Williamson get into four games and start to look like the force of nature that he was at Duke, the franchise-changing player who was the runaway consensus No. 1 pick, and he averaged 23.3 points per game on 68.8 percent shooting. Then Williamson tore his right lateral meniscus, needed surgery, and ultimately was out far longer than the original 6-8 week projections as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Wednesday night, Williamson finally makes his NBA debut, lacing up his Nikes against San Antonio at home in New Orleans.

What should we expect in Zion’s debut (with him likely on a minutes limit)? Here are three things to watch for.

1) Dunks. A lot of dunks.

Zion Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete but right now his game is not filled with subtlety and craft — the manchild attacks the rim and finishes. With authority.

Look at Williamson’s shot chart from the preseason: He took just four shots outside the paint.

This is not a knock on Williamson’s game — the dunk is the most efficient shot on the court, f you can get it, take it. Williamson has skills — a crossover he uses in transition, an inside-out dribble, and more — that he uses to get to the rim, and he wants to finish every play the same way.

Which is exactly what the Pelicans need.

New Orleans has good shot creators — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and they have shooters such as J.J. Redick. What New Orleans could use is a threat that goes to the rim and forces defenses to collapse a little, opening up space (Derrick Favors has provided some of that). The Pelicans could use a player who can draw fouls and attacks the rim. That’s Zion. He should fit in beautifully on offense.

One scout I talked to (and he wasn’t the only person to make this comparison) said Williamson’s early career could resemble Blake Griffin’s in this sense: When he entered the league, Griffin was a high-flying dunking sensation who got his points at the rim, but eventually he developed an outside shot and a passing game that made him a much more rounded, All-NBA level player. Williamson has work to do on his other skills, but the man is going to dunk the ball in his debut.

2) The start of a playoff push in New Orleans.

Williamson’s injury was not the only one that hit the Pelicans: Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball have all missed significant chunks of time. Combine all of that with a newly formed roster, and the Pelicans got off to a dreadful start.

However, the rest of the bottom half of the West was equally dreadful. The result is that while New Orleans is just 17-27, Williamson’s return finds the Pelicans only 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. What’s more, the Pelicans have hit a groove going 11-5 in their last 16 with Ingram playing at an All-Star level to lead the offense and Favors providing a defensive anchor. Ball is starting to find a comfort zone in Alvin Gentry’s offense, which is allowing Holiday to work more at his natural two-guard spot.

Now enter Williamson and the Pelicans are thinking playoff push — they have pulled back on trade talks to see how things shake out over the next couple of weeks.

One other thing in its favor: New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Western Conference (only Atlanta is easier overall). Only one team New Orleans faces in its final 15 has a winning record — that’s a schedule set up for a closing kick.

With Zion back in the fold, the Pelicans are going to make a run at it.

3) How well do Zion and Brandon Ingram mesh?

This is the $168 million question for the Pelicans.

(It’s less expectation than a question, one that could be a five-year $202 million question if Ingram can play his way onto an All-NBA team this season, which may not be likely but certainly is possible.)

Ingram has played his way into that size max contract this summer and if the Pelicans don’t give it to him another team will (the most another team could offer is four-years, $125 million). David Griffin has talked about keeping Ingram, the team is expected to back up the Brinks truck for him, but that doesn’t change the question:

Can Ingram and Zion coexist on the court?

Before the season — and still in a lot of minds — there are doubts about how well the games of the slashing, attacking Ingram and Williamson would fit together. Could this be another version of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid concerns in Philly, where two elite players want to operate in the same space and it clogs things up?

Ingram has developed a reliable jump shot this season — 39.9 percent from three on 6.2 attempts per game — and that has opened up his game. It also means he should fit better next to Williamson. However, the Pelicans likely want to see how all this works before they pay Ingram all that money this summer.

Williamson and Ingram may become the cornerstones of an outstanding New Orleans team in the future, but the questions about fit will linger until the players answer them. Those are not questions that are going to be answered in Williamson’s debut, but it’s something to watch.