Mystics Discover Hurdles on the Way to a W.N.B.A. Breakthrough

Mystics General Manager and Coach Mike Thibault pondered his team’s accomplishments in Year 1 of the Elena Delle Donne era, his answer was as complicated as the campaign itself.

“Given everything that happened, I’m happy with where we’re at,” Thibault said. “But not content. There’s a difference, I think, between being happy and content.”

That difference is best measured as the gap between the Mystics and the Minnesota Lynx, who completed a three-game sweep of Washington with a 81-70 victory Sunday in the W.N.B.A. semifinals.

The win set up a W.N.B.A. finals rematch between the Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks, who had the best regular-season records in the league for the second year in a row.

Thibault tried to lift the Mystics into the W.N.B.A. elite with an uncharacteristically grand off-season, which produced a trade for Elena Delle Donne, the league’s most valuable player in 2015, and Kristi Toliver, who started at guard for the Sparks when they won the championship last season.

The resulting lineup featured three of the league’s five best 3-point shooters from 2016, including Emma Meesseman, and the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne and the 6-4 Meesseman promised matchup problems for any opponent before even accounting for a deep roster of versatile talents.

But a combination of overseas commitments and injuries kept the Mystics from finding their top form until the end of the regular season, and even then, not consistently.

Because of an extended European league season and commitments to the Belgian national team, Meesseman played in only 23 games. Delle Donne tied for third in the league with 19.7 points a game, but she sustained ankle and thumb injuries that limited her to 25 games. Key players like Tayler Hill and LaToya Sanders saw their seasons end prematurely or never happen at all because of injuries.

“They were in a championship conversation going into the season, and I think Mike knew some of the challenges he was going to have,” Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Not the injuries per se, but knowing that Emma would be away from the team, all the national team commitments that you have going on, it was going to maybe prevent them from getting off to the start they wanted. But what worries me is, the longer they play, the better they’re getting.”

The resulting season looked superficially like many recent Mystics campaigns: 18-16, good for the league’s sixth seed in the playoffs. A team expected to challenge the records for 3-point proficiency finished 10th in the league, at 31.7 percent.

“I think we did pretty damn well for what was thrown our way,” Delle Donne said Sunday. “There were so many things this season where we could have just thrown in the towel and said: ‘You know what? Next year, we’ll work on it. We’ve had just too much adversity and we can’t get through it.’ And that’s exactly the opposite of what this team did.”

There were signs as the season neared its conclusion that the Mystics were reaching their expected capabilities.

Delle Donne returned from the thumb injury late in the season, and helped the Mystics clinch a playoff berth, scoring 37 points in one game and providing consistency at both ends of the floor on par with her best seasons.

The Mystics, who have been in the league since 1998, had not won a playoff series since 2002. But they gained a pair of victories in one-game playoffs this month, first a convincing win at home over the Dallas Wings and then an upset of the Liberty at Madison Square Garden. In part, that was thanks to a W.N.B.A. playoff-record nine 3-pointers from Toliver.

But the Mystics also finally got a few weeks with Toliver, Delle Donne and Meesseman on the floor at the same time. So even in a series the Lynx swept, winning in a variety of ways — a rout in Game 1, a fourth-quarter comeback in Game 2 and a slow strangling in Game 3 — the gap between the two teams was less about talent, and more about a Lynx team that has been largely intact since the start of the decade. Minnesota has run its offense through center Sylvia Fowles, this season’s M.V.P., for three years. The Lynx’s top two scorers — Fowles and Maya Moore — did not miss any games this season.

The biggest acquisition the Mystics will make this off-season is continuity. Toliver, Delle Donne and Meesseman are signed to long-term contracts. Delle Donne will stick around, Thibault said, and work out locally. Toliver will not go overseas until late December. Meesseman will, but she will be playing with Sanders. Hill and the other injured Mystics are expected to return healthy.

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