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The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Sept. 20, 2023

BROOKLYN — Happy Basketball Wednesday. It was palpable in the room, the sense of destiny extending just beyond the reach of the Washington Mystics, a team filled with people who know what it feels like to win it all, and the New York Liberty, whose Jonquel Jones has found herself achingly close to her championship dreams, but never captured one.

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At this level, titles aren’t won because one team can play and the other one can’t. Titles get decided by moments, by a particular bounce of the ball, a play made or a cutting teammate missed. On Tuesday night in Brooklyn, it was the Liberty who made those plays, a Jonquel Jones offensive rebound rescuing her team from a late deficit and sending the deliriously wild game into overtime. It was Breanna Stewart knocking down four free throws to push the game out of reach and end Washington’s season.

“We had a great opportunity in front of us to get it home for Game Three,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. “It was right there for the taking, you know, I guess probably two offensive boards by them let the game get to overtime. So it’s tough.”

The loss was no fault of Thibault’s, who managed as best he could preparing his team to go win in New York, just once, and nearly pulled it off. He put the game in the capable hands of Natasha Cloud, who has exceeded any reasonable expectation of her ceiling and authored one of the great playoff performances in recent memory: 33 points, nine assists, four steals, and just two turnovers while playing relentless defense on Sabrina Ionescu all night. But one of those two turnovers, a pass that cost the Mystics the chance to go for the win in regulation with just over ten seconds left, was still haunting her when she spoke to the media after the game.

“We were relentless this entire season,” an emotional Cloud said, summing up the season. “And so a moment like this sucks, because I feel like we could have taken this series back to DC. That’s not how it played out, but I’m really proud of the relentlessness of this group. And if you look at our team, and any other team in the league, if they lost three starters: what would they be?”

These Mystics, had they been healthy all season, were a “top three, top four seed” in Liberty coach Sandy Brondello‘s telling, but even that is hard to square with the group that won it all back in 2019. That team won it all with Elena Delle Donne at just 30 years of age, and Cloud, Emma Meesseman, Myisha Hines-Allen and Ariel Atkins all in their 20s. One title seemed like a down payment on the success ahead that night in Washington DC, a lively Cloud and Delle Donne celebrating, a media still allowed into the locker rooms able to capture the emotional highs of such a moment — valuable for everyone involved.

Drinks were consumed and screams were plentiful. It felt like the start of something. As happens when victory is achieved, bliss overtakes explanation.

“Yeah, I mean, no one on this team gives a crap about getting credit,” Delle Donne told us that night. “Like the stat sheet, throw that thing away. Nobody cares. I know like teams will say that about themselves, but this is true here. Like as long as we get a W at the end of the day, that’s all that we’ve ever cared about, and that’s what makes basketball fun. That’s like when you were kids playing, why it was so fun, and that’s why this season has been so fun.”

Tuesday night, Delle Donne kept on studying the box score in front of her, as if she could will it to change. Cloud spoke repeatedly of the gap between how she is perceived and her level as a player, which is both hard to quantify and, frankly, harder for me to fathom, having been in the building so often when the stakes are highest and Cloud, in turn, plays her best. Who doesn’t know at this point just how great Natasha Cloud is? And are they seeing a doctor about it?

Now Delle Donne is a free agent and so is Cloud. Kristi Toliver, “Panda” on that 2019 team, had successful surgery on her ACL, and may not play for anyone next year. Delle Donne is one year closer to deciding that all the aches and pains and sacrifice that it takes to get her body through another season is more trouble than it’s worth, and at 34, it’s hard to imagine the basketball world getting that many more years of her transcendent play.

There’s no reason to doubt Mike Thibault will figure out how to build this roster — 2019 was, along with many other things, the moment the great figure in the game who’d won virtually every other honor finally got his title, and he remains a canny general manager with a team coached by his very capable son.

The playoffs can serve as a roller coaster of emotions, and the best-of-three format, 2-1, is particularly cruel in this respect. The Mystics, simply by securing a rebound or avoiding an errant pass, could be jubilantly returning to Washington on the cusp of a great victory, and instead find their season ended.

It was very different that night back in October 2019, when none of us knew the global pandemic that intermittently threatens us still was just a few months away, and Delle Donne, until that final buzzer, had still needed to find out how championships felt vicariously.

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“I mean, it feels phenomenal,” Delle Donne said that night. “I’ve like asked Panda [Kristi Toliver] about it, like how does it feel? What’s it like? Panda, how can I get one?

“But my goodness, this feels so good. It’s hard to even put it to words, but to win this and win this with such a great group of people, I think that’s what makes this so special. We wanted to win this for the person next to us… that’s what we’re going to take away, and that’s what we’ll remember forever. We’re going to remember this season because we were around such incredible people, and we absolutely adore being together.”

Did the Mystics know how fleeting this would be? It’s impossible to imagine, that record-setting group, one of the finest offenses in WNBA history, overtaken by injuries and world events and the Storm, Aces and Liberty.

It’s all the more poignant by the smiling face of Jonquel Jones a few minutes later Tuesday night in Brooklyn, perched on the same podium next to Brondello and her teammate, Breanna Stewart, a pair of in-prime MVPs together on the same roster. Stewart scored 27. Jones, incredibly, added 19 on just nine shots from the field, adding 14 rebounds.

Breanna Stewart, Sandy Brondello and Jonquel Jones address the media following the New York Liberty win in the 2023 WNBA playoffs on Sept. 20, 2023. (Howard Megdal photo)
Breanna Stewart, Sandy Brondello and Jonquel Jones address the media following the New York Liberty win in the 2023 WNBA playoffs on Sept. 20, 2023. (Howard Megdal photo)

For that 2019 Sun team that came so close to winning it all, their victories in the finals came when Jones reached a superhuman level — Cloud’s 33 Tuesday was accumulated very differently, but as basketball high art it was of a piece with the 32 and 18 Jones put up in Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA Finals.

“I think any time you play in a championship, you learn something about yourself,” a disappointed Jones told reporters that night in 2019, after her Sun came up a game short against the Mystics. “I think I’ve been able to take it to another level, but it was just — you know, it was winner-take-all, so I just wanted to go as hard as I could. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way.”

Clearly what Jones learned was she wanted to play somewhere she could be the difference-maker some nights, but not forced to be that every night. For all the dominance of Alyssa Thomas, the games of the two stars had too much overlap, too many pain points, and when championships are decided by this deflection, that miss, it kept Jones from her goal. The same thing happened in 2022, Jones’ Sun bested just shy of the mountaintop by the Aces.

So I asked her Tuesday night: how did it feel, in that moment, to have the bounce go your way? Not luck — Jones is, as Eric Thibault put it simply and accurately, “she’s big and good” — but in position to create that moment, as surely as Cloud, for all her heroics, was not elevated by her teammates sufficiently to do the same this year. Did it feel different?

“Different in what sense?” she asked.

“Like this might be the year you get to the mountaintop?”

Jones broke into a big smile. There is a lightness to her here in 2023 with the Liberty, like she’s carrying so much less on her shoulders every time she moves on the court, or even speaks to us in the media.

“Mm-hmm,” she said. “I definitely have felt from the beginning that this team is special, and we’re going to be able to do a lot of special things.”

Jones went on to make it clear that she knows there is more work to do — she knows this like few others in this league. She doesn’t know yet what it will feel like to win a championship, even if she asks her teammate Stewart as plaintively as Delle Donne once beseeched Toliver. But she knows this: it is wonderful, it is fleeting, and on Tuesday night, she managed to bring her team a vital step closer to that collective joy.

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By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.