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WNBA

Elena Delle Donne Is Back, But The Mystics Are Running Out Of Time

A worker sweeps the court before the second half of the game between the Washington Mystics and the Chicago Sky at Entertainment & Sports Arena on May 15, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Tina Charles, an MVP contender on the Mystics in her 11th WNBA season, sometimes brings to mind “Tungsten Arm” O’Doyle of the 1921 Akron Groomsmen.

A few of Charles’s stat lines this year: 30 points and 10 rebounds in a 10-point loss to the Aces; 31 points and 16 rebounds in a three-point loss to the Liberty; 27 points and 10 rebounds in an 11-point loss to the Wings. The center is averaging 25 a game, shooting better and more often from outside than she has in her entire career, and the Mystics are currently 8–14, trying to stanch a four-game losing streak, and sitting outside the playoff picture with a fair amount of ground to make up and not much time to do it.

By now, you can almost write the Mystics game story before the game is over; the pattern is that established. The total collapse against the Aces last Sunday is a more extreme example, but take last Thursday’s game against the Phoenix Mercury, which Washington led 44–39 at halftime. Through two quarters, Charles led the team with 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting from the floor. No one else on the team had scored more than five points, and the halftime adjustment practically made itself. In the second half, Charles was held to just three points, all from the free-throw line and Washington was outscored 38-20. The Mystics’ field goal numbers dived from 16-of-40 in the first half to a truly ugly 5-of-35. “It’s disappointing at this point, a little bit. First half, we look like a championship team, and then second half, I’m not really sure,” said Charles after another loss to the Aces last Tuesday.

The rest of the roster isn’t a bunch of nobodies. Charles’s teammate Ariel Atkins is an All-Star guard and an Olympian, and she and Natasha Cloud were valuable pieces of the 2019 championship team. But both have struggled from three-point range for much of the year. It’s hard to square this team with the Mystics who hit league-record numbers of threes, and did so quite efficiently, in 2019.

Help is on the way! (Help is also on a minutes restriction for the rest of the season.) After nearly two full years of not playing basketball, Elena Delle Donne has returned from a back injury to the team she took to its first championship. She made her season debut on Sunday afternoon, putting up 16 points in 22 minutes against the Seattle Storm in a loss. (Given the exciting circumstances, it was a loss the team didn’t seem to take too hard.)

With only 10 games left to play in the season and a few other teams scrapping for the eighth playoff seed, the Mystics don’t have much runway to turn things around. “You don’t really get the opportunity to be like ‘Oh, we’ll fix it next game, oh, we’ll fix it next game, oh, we’ll fix it next game.’ Before you know it, the season’s over and you don’t have a playoff spot,” said Atkins. But one more consistent scoring threat, someone the Mystics can turn to in the final minutes of a game, has often seemed like exactly what they need.