One step shy from a return trip to the WNBA Finals, the Washington Mystics look to complete a sweep of their semifinal playoff series Sunday night when they face the Las Vegas Aces on the road in Game 3.
While two-time Most Valuable Player Elena Delle Donne gets most of the publicity as the face of the franchise, and rightfully so, it has been the emergence of forward Emma Meesseman that has turned the top-seeded Mystics into an offensive juggernaut that could go down as one of the best in league history.
The Belgian was a second-round pick by the Mystics in the 2013 draft and had been a dependable starter from 2014-17, averaging between 10.1 and 15.2 points each season. The 6-foot-4 Meesseman sat out last season, worn out from splitting time among the Mystics, her European club team, and the Belgian national team.
This season, she did not rejoin the Mystics until mid-July due to national team commitments for the EuroBasket tournament, and it was not until coach Mike Thibault put her in the starting five as part of a bigger lineup towards the latter part of the regular season that Washington's offense took off.
Meesseman's presence essentially gives the Mystics three ball-handlers and two inside-out forwards who can step out on the perimeter and hit 3-pointers. Meesseman has actually outscored Delle Donne 50-38 in powering Washington to the brink of the WNBA Finals and matched a career high with 30 points in Thursday night's 103-91 victory in Game 2.
"Two years ago when we played Minnesota, and she was dead tired at the end of the season and beat up. She couldn't make a shot, she struggled, and it was part of the reason she needed some time away from the game a little bit," Thibault explained to The Washington Post. " ' She's been rejuvenated. Her experience with her national team has helped her confidence because she's a go-to player for them, and her teammates have kept telling her, 'You're a go-to player for us, too.'"
Delle Donne had an off-night shooting - hitting 5 of 15 from the field -- but still contributed 14 points and 10 rebounds. Natasha Cloud added 18 points and 11 assists as the Mystics had six players in double figures and have totaled 200 points in the two wins.
Las Vegas struggled throughout the first two games on its defensive rotations as Washington has run its pick-and-pop offense on the Aces seemingly at will. Meesseman's stellar performances adds another layer of frustration since, in the words of Liz Cambage, "She ain't missing any shots."
Aces coach Bill Laimbeer took an interesting tack to try and take the pressure off his team, reminding everyone they are ahead of schedule with regards to the three-year plan to turn Las Vegas into title contenders. Cambage's arrival via trade before the season may have accelerated outside expectations for the Aces - some sports books made them preseason favorites to win the title - but Laimbeer thinks his team should play with nothing to lose since this series is gravy.
"It was important for our players and our franchise to be in a series because it teaches them and gets them learning," Laimbeer said. "I keep saying this is Year 2 of three. If it happens this year, wonderful, and we have a chance to do that."
There is not much more Cambage could have done on the offensive end in the first two games as the All-Star center totaled 42 points and 22 rebounds while recording double-doubles in both contests. Kelsey Plum returned to the starting lineup and had 19 points and 10 assists but conceded the offensive pressure the Mystics are putting on the Aces has been difficult to weather.
"They capitalize on everything you do, mistakes that you make," Plum told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "They're such a good team in terms of the way they execute. ' If you relax for a second, before you know it, you look up and you're down 10."
Should the Aces stave off elimination, Game 4 will be Tuesday night in Las Vegas.