The Washington Post

The Mystics’ Mike Thibault will miss the season’s final two games after a positive test for the coronaviru­s.

Associate head coach and son takes the reins as Mystics eye playoffs

- BY KAREEM COPELAND kareem.copeland@washpost.com Mystics at Liberty Tomorrow, 7 p.m., Twitter

Washington associate head coach Eric Thibault was running point guard during a five-on-five portion of practice Wednesday as the Mystics prepared for a winand-they’re-in game at the New York Liberty on Friday night. Thibault mimicked Sabrina Ionescu on the practice floor and will lead the charge against her from the first chair in Barclays Center.

Mystics head coach Mike Thibault tested positive for the coronaviru­s and was placed in the WNBA’S health and safety protocol Tuesday, meaning he will miss the game in New York and the regular season finale against the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday at Entertainm­ent and Sports Arena. Washington (12-18) is in the eighth and final playoff slot with two games to go and can clinch a postseason berth with a win against the Liberty (11-20).

Mike Thibault is feeling fine and participat­ed in a team call Wednesday, but he must remain away from the team. His wife, Nanci, tested negative. WNBA policy allows players and coaches to end isolation in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. But the situation moves Eric up a chair and gives him the opportunit­y for his first regular season game as a head coach.

“He hasn’t had the decency to get ejected in nine years before now,” Eric said with a chuckle, “so I guess this is how I’m getting thrown into it. But, obviously, having been here a long time, I know how he wants his team to run and play. So I don’t think there’s going to be like a gap in how we go about things or what we try to do. It’s just sliding over into that seat and having to make calls and subs and stuff on the fly will be a different experience.”

Having Eric run the show is far from a significan­t change for the Mystics despite Mike being the winningest coach in league history and at the helm in Washington for nine seasons. Eric is often the loudest and most prevalent voice during practice and often physically participat­es, as he did Wednesday.

“It’s just a weird scenario,” Eric said. “I think we’re probably ready to handle that. I guess the question is beyond me: Can I handle it in that seat? But that’s okay. If our players are ready to go, we’ll be just fine.”

The Mystics have dealt with a litany of injuries that left the team shorthande­d for most of what has seemed like a cursed season. Alysha Clark (foot) has missed the entire season. Elena Delle Donne (back) returned from a nearly two-year absence to play in three games before being sidelined again with nerve pain stemming from that back issue. She remains day-to-day, and the decision will be made Thursday on whether she will travel to New York.

Myisha Hines-allen missed two stretches, including the past four games with a non-covid-19 illness, but she was back at practice Wednesday and is good to go against the Liberty. Ariel Atkins returns after missing the past two games following a death in the family. Tina Charles, the league’s leading scorer, recently missed a handful of games, and Mystics players have missed a total of 91 games this season.

The WNBA is 99 percent vaccinated, and the league has had stringent testing and safety measures. But even those vaccinated, such as Mike Thibault, can test positive.

“You’re scared immediatel­y,” point guard Natasha Cloud said. “I called Coach T immediatel­y after they sent us a group text explaining what happened, just to make sure that he was okay. And then, our other concern is Nanci and making sure that they’re healthy and that they’re safe.

“So, again, this is bigger than basketball. This is something that is still plaguing us as a world, not only a country. But I would say that here in America we need to have real discussion­s about what we’re doing moving forward, because we have a lot of people being vaccinated and responsibl­e, but we still have a lot of irresponsi­ble and selfish people being unvaccinat­ed. . . . By not being vaccinated, you are endangerin­g your community. And so at what point do you take it upon yourself to stop being a selfish a--hole?”

All of the Mystics’ concerns centered on the health of Mike and Nanci Thibault, not on how Eric will lead this weekend. Cloud lauded his basketball IQ and the way he forces players to look at the game differentl­y. Eric has spent the past three seasons as associate head coach. He could be next in line whenever his father retires.

All anyone wants, at the moment, is a win Friday.

“I think at this point of the year, it’s probably not toe-in-the-water,” Eric said. “We’ve just got to jump and go just because of where we are in the season. If it were a preseason game or something, it might be a little more, ‘Let’s experiment and let’s try some things.’

“We’ve just got to go play. It’s not like I’m coming in and running my own training camp. It’s more trying to keep us playing the way we’ve been playing and the way we’re going.”

 ?? KATHERINE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? The Mystics can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Liberty on Friday but will have to do so without head coach Mike Thibault.
KATHERINE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST The Mystics can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Liberty on Friday but will have to do so without head coach Mike Thibault.

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