Despite Finals loss, Mystics have a lot to be optimistic about

Elena Delle Donne's Mystics got swept in the WNBA Finals, but it's hard to look at their season as anything but a success. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

FAIRFAX, Va. -- Minutes after Washington head coach Mike Thibault walked into the Mystics locker room following Wednesday's 98-82 season-ending loss to the Seattle Storm, he was already looking forward to next season.

Choosing not to dwell on the team's third straight loss, or make any excuses as to how it fell on the wrong end of 3-0 WNBA Finals sweep, he was already looking ahead.

"It's already in the past," Thibault said. "We're already onto the next thing."

Despite losing in their first Finals appearance in the team's 21-year history, Thibault and the Mystics know that the 9,000-plus fans who traveled 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and piled into Eagle Bank Arena know their team, for the first time in almost a decade, has a bright future.

"For those fans who have waited 20-something years, they should be excited about what they have going forward," Thibault said.

The Mystics began the season picked to finish eighth in the Associated Press preseason poll. Many question marks surrounded Washington's offseason, from who in the frontcourt could aid Elena Delle Donne to how the team would adapt without the presence of Emma Meesseman, who averaged 14 points and 5.7 rebounds but announced in January she would sit out the season to train for this month's World Cup with Belgium. They also passed on Victoria Vivians and Kia Nurse in the draft and put their faith in rookie guard Ariel Atkins.

But over the course of the season, many of those questions were answered, some emphatically. Two of the league's most improved players were on the Mystics' roster. Latoya Sanders, who returned from a foot injury in 2017, became a formidable defensive presence in the frontcourt, and fourth-year guard Natasha Cloud's ability to efficiently steer the offense was crucial to the team's success.

Kristi Toliver put forth her best season in recent years, earning her first All-Star appearance since 2013 alongside Delle Done. And of course, Atkins emerged as one of the best rookies in a strong 2018 draft class, showcasing her ability as both a tenacious defender and viable offensive threat behind Delle Donne and Toliver.

"We spent a lot of our time this year relying on a rookie player to be our third scorer," Thibault said of Atkins, who averaged 11.3 points in the regular season and scored 20 in Game 5 of the semifinals against Atlanta. "What she did this year was ahead of schedule for us."

And they still were led by the five-time All-Star Delle Donne all season long. At least until she suffered a knee injury in Game 2 of the semifinals against Atlanta. She missed Game 3, and while she returned for Games 4 and 5 and the entire WNBA Finals, she was a shell of her capability.

"This team made a lot of great strides from last year to this year. We showed a lot of character, a lot of resiliency. ... Everyone else in the league wishes they were playing tonight, so we are very aware of that." Kristi Toliver

Washington trailed 47-30 at halftime, its fewest in any half this postseason. The Mystics shot 29.7 percent from the floor, and Seattle's Natasha Howard, the primary defender on Delle Donne, held the former MVP to 2-of-7 shooting in the first half in one-on-one situations.

Delle Donne made a halftime adjustment, attacking from outside the paint more instead of playing with her back to the basket. Once she found her rhythm, she got her other teammates involved. The Mystics trailed by as many as 18 in the third quarter but clawed within five on a Tierra Ruffin-Pratt 3-pointer with 6:49 left, with Delle Donne scoring or assisting on each basket during an 11-1 run.

But the Mystics couldn't get any closer, as Finals MVP Breanna Stewart's three-point play on the ensuing possession ignited an 8-0 Seattle run that pushed the deficit back to double digits. In the end, the Storm, who dominated the regular season, proved to be the league's best team.

"We know how great the teams are and how much better we have to be," said Delle Donne, who finished with 23 points. "We're not just going to be satisfied that we got here this season -- we've got to improve because everyone else is."

The Mystics have every reason to be optimistic for next season, and that's beyond the fact they'll have a new home at the St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C. Atkins will begin the season with a year of experience under her belt. Meesseman will return to the Mystics' roster, deepening an already formidable bench. And Delle Donne (fingers crossed) will return healthy and should make another run at league MVP.

"It was a successful [season]," Toliver said. "This team made a lot of great strides from last year to this year. We showed a lot of character, a lot of resiliency. ... Everyone else in the league wishes they were playing tonight, so we are very aware of that."

Delle Donne's on-court chemistry with Toliver, their second season together as teammates since Toliver signed as a free agent in 2017, also grew. Even in defeat, their budding connection was on full display.

"Last year, we were brand new," Delle Donne said. "I didn't even know [Toliver's] favorite beer. Now I can go to the bar and order everything she needs."

"I'm going to need a lot tonight," Toliver replied.

And then Delle Donne turned her head to her right and responded, "Trust me. I got you, Panda."