The Washington Post

The pandemic and injuries have walloped the Mystics, but they’re still fighting

- Candace.buckner@washpost.com

social justice. Latoya Sanders prioritize­d the health of her family. Elena Delle Donne requested a waiver for medical concerns. With 40 percent of the team’s salary being paid to players who were not suiting up, the Mystics were left with no cap space and no options to replace Aerial Powers when a hamstring injury ended her season just six games into the bubble.

The hits kept coming: Phoenix Mercury guard Shey Peddy, whom the Mystics had cut earlier in the season, made the gamewinnin­g shot to oust Washington from the first round of the playoffs.

The pain piled up: Alysha Clark, the team’s next big offseason pickup, hasn’t played this season because of a foot injury. On Aug. 22, Delle Donne, the two-time MVP and face of the franchise, returned to the court after missing nearly two years, but just 21/ games later, she

2 aggravated her back and has been sidelined since. Myisha Hines-allen, Leilani Mitchell and Charles have experience­d injuries, and the Mystics have missed 91 games due to injury.

Also, the burden of year-round basketball caught up in other ways: Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP, was one of the first Mystics players to leave after the series to play in Russia. She returned stateside to carry the weight as the team’s No. 1 option in the bubble. But this season, as a free agent, she opted not to return because she needed rest.

The daily puzzle of figuring out a rotation — the Mystics have been forced to dress just six or seven players for some games this season — can wear on a coach.

“Literally every day, we all look at each other and [say]: ‘Okay, who can practice today? Who’s in and who’s out?’ ” Thibault said. “It’s just no fun when every day you have key players injured. It’s just not fun.”

Yet this team, which never got its parade and which had all of its momentum sapped by a pandemic, sits on the doorstep of the 2021 playoffs.

The Mystics, with a 12-18 record that shows the scars of the season, can clinch at least the eighth spot Friday with a win over the New York Liberty. Delle Donne’s status may remain in doubt, but imagine a healthy Mystics roster in the playoffs. Any opponent facing Washington in a one-game playoff series wouldn’t want that problem.

Washington’s championsh­ip window hasn’t slammed shut, but with problems looming this offseason — with Charles, Meesseman and Hines-allen set to be free agents and Thibault accepting the grim reality of the salary cap — time is not on their side. The Mystics didn’t know it then, but the window that seemed to be widening Oct. 11, 2019, was already beginning its slow and inevitable closure. Still, Thibault can look over these past two years and see life lessons, if not as many victories as he expected.

“It’s not going to be a perfect world. You get dealt a bad hand; crap happens,” Thibault said. “It’s how you handle it. You learn a lot about yourself and others when you go through tough times.”

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