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.

New Orleans Pelicans fire head coach Alvin Gentry

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No team entered the NBA restart bubble in Orlando with the buzz of the New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson was back, they had an All-Star in Brandon Ingram and solid veterans such as J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday around them. With all that, no team was as disappointing in the bubble as the Pelicans, who went 2-6. They looked like they were going through the motions, and all season long were less than the sum of their parts.

Saturday New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry paid the price for that and was fired, the team announced. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez of ESPN and soon after confirmed by the organization.

It was not a surprise. Gentry was considered on shaky ground before teams flew to Florida and the disappointing play of his team while there led to team VP of basketball operations David Griffin making the change. (A sitting coach is always on shaky ground when the management above him changes, as happened with Gentry.) While Zion was not in the bubble the entire time, this is still a talented roster, one that came out like it was just going through the motions, with Lonzo Ball reportedly having checked out. No one seemed focused on the opportunity to make the postseason. That attitude is why the Pelicans fired their coach.

“I want to thank Alvin for his contributions to the Pelicans and the New Orleans community,” Pelicans Owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We believe that making a head coaching change is necessary at this time. I truly appreciate Alvin’s leadership, dedication and perseverance through some challenging circumstances over the past five seasons. He will always be a part of our Pelicans family, and we wish him and his family all the best in the future. Our intention moving forward is to find the right head coach that will guide this Pelicans team to compete for championships. That is what our fans deserve.”

Clippers lead assistant Tyronn Lue and Lakers lead assistant Jason Kidd — two veteran coaches who are considered player-friendly — were mentioned as potential replacements by ESPN and Marc Stein of the New York Times. Lue and Kidd have both been mentioned in connection with the open Brooklyn Nets coaching job. Both also are in the Orlando bubble with their respective teams as the playoffs are about to begin (and both likely will be there for a while). Another name to watch is current Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, who is not expected to be brought back with the Rockets and favors the kind of up-tempo system that would suit Zion. n

The challenge with big-name replacements in New Orleans is money — this is the smallest market in the NBA and ownership has been hit hard by the economic slowdown in the wake of the coronavirus. Lue, Kidd, and D’Antoni will be expensive and demand five-year contracts. The Pelicans could look at seasoned assistant coaches who have not yet held a top spot — Sam Cassell, Ime Udoka, and there are many others — who could do the job and come at a price more within their budget.

The key for whoever gets the head coaching job is to form a strong bond with Zion, the future of the franchise, and figure out how to get the most out of him.

 

 

 

Portland, Memphis where they want to be as play-in series tips-off

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Heroics were needed to get Portland and Memphis on the doorstep of the playoffs.

For the Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard averaged more than 50 points — with a shot from a step inside midcourt in there as one of his many highlights — to lead the way in three consecutive down-to-the-wire, season-on-the-line victories.

For the Grizzlies, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas became the first teammates in Memphis history to post triple-doubles in what turned out to be a must-win game as well.

And now, the mission isn’t done yet for either club. Portland and Memphis meet Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) in Game 1 of the Western Conference play-in series. The Trail Blazers have the upper hand by finishing the seeding-game portion of the NBA’s restart ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland needs one win, Memphis needs two to advance to a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’re where we want to be,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And so, I don’t think anybody’s over the moon right now. We know that we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no time to really celebrate.”

Had the Blazers lost any of their last three games, they could be home already. Lillard has scored 51, 61 and 42 points, respectively, in those three games — and had to sweat out a last-second shot by Brooklyn in a one-point Portland win on Thursday night that determined their play-in fate.

“I think mentally I’ll be fine,” Lillard said. “I think physically, it’ll obviously be some fatigue here. But I think it won’t be as hard as you might think because there’s a lot riding on these games. Every game that we’ve been playing, our last three or four games, has been like our season is on the line.”

The Grizzlies came into the restart at Walt Disney World in control of the play-in race, then sputtered before winning the game they needed to on Thursday against Milwaukee to clinch a spot.

Morant said he remembers when the Grizzlies were ranked 27th coming into the season in a 30-team league. He’s used that slight as fuel ever since.

“Now look at us,” Morant said. “Being that underdog doesn’t matter to us at all. We love being the underdog. It’s just extra motivation, fuel to the fire. It just makes our success even better, coming in and being the underdog.”

Game 2, if necessary, will be Sunday. The series for the play-in winner against the Lakers begins Tuesday.

Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell expected to play Monday against Dallas

Montrezl Harrell play
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When the Clippers take the court Monday for their first playoff game in the bubble, going against Luka Doncic and a dangerous Mavericks’ team, Montrezl Harrell will be suited up and ready to play.

The Clippers’ Sixth Man of the Year candidate, who excused from the bubble due to the death of his grandmother and missed all eight seeding games, will be out of quarantine and cleared to play, report Adrian Wojnarowski and Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

Doc Rivers said he plans to play Harrell against an active Dallas front line.

“I’m just going to throw him in there, he’s earned that right,” Rivers said. “The challenge will be just how ready he is. I don’t know if I have ever had a guy that hasn’t played in eight games or whatever and hasn’t had any practice and we’re just going to throw him out on the floor in a playoff game. We’re hoping that at this point.”

Harrell came off the bench to average 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Clippers this season. Harrell was often part of the Clippers closing lineup this season because of his improved defense, but he always brought relentless energy off the bench that lifted the Clippers nightly. The Harrell/Lou Williams pick-and-roll remains one of the smoothest and most dangerous in the league.

Harrell also gives Doc Rivers a lot of versatility and options on how to close games — the Clippers can go big, go small, and do either well. They will need that against a Dallas team that rolls out a front line of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and former Clipper Boban Marjanovic.

Not having Harrell for eight games in the bubble added to that versatility, Rivers said.

“We got to play JaMychal [Green] at the five far more than we ever thought we would. We needed to work on that because he’s such a floor spacer,” Rivers said. “We got way more work on that than we thought, but we actually liked it.”

Expect to see more of that — and some Harrell — against Dallas starting Monday.

Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin denies ex-wife’s abuse accusations

Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin
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Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin – filling in for Nick Nurse – served as Toronto’s acting head coach for a win over the 76ers on Wednesday. “For one night, I felt like Cinderella,” Griffin said afterward.

Griffin’s moment in the spotlight drew attention to abuse claims his ex-wife, Audrey Griffin, had been making online for months.

Audrey Griffin:

Raptors release:

The Toronto Raptors and lead assistant coach Adrian Griffin have issued a joint statement addressing accusations of domestic abuse shared in social media posts by Griffin’s ex-wife on Thursday, Aug. 14.

Statement from Adrian Griffin:

“This morning, accusations were made against me on social media by my former wife that I vehemently deny. We are involved in a longstanding legal dispute over alimony and child support arrangements. I am disappointed to have to address false accusations in this way, and I apologize for any distraction this has potentially caused for our team at this important time.”

Statement from the Toronto Raptors:

“When we saw these allegations this morning, we were dismayed – Adrian is a valuable member of our team. Our leadership immediately spoke with him, and he flatly denied the allegations in the posts. We will support the process as he and his former partner settle these matters.”

Griffin was also reportedly a candidate for the Bulls head-coaching job, which opened today.

Hopefully, the truth will emerge and justice will be served.