WASHINGTON – A year ago the Washington Mystics made it to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Top-to-bottom they were a loaded team that finally made the jump led by one of the most talented women's basketball players in the world in Elena Delle Donne.
But Delle Donne was hindered, battling through a knee injury throughout the entire playoffs. There was no one to give her relief, which resulted in the Seattle Storm sweeping the Mystics in the Finals.
A full 365 days and some change have passed. Nearly everyone returned to the Mystics for another go at a championship. The younger players added a year of experience. Expectations are just as high. This year though they believe that they already have what it takes to win a championship; Emma Meesseman came back to the team.
"Emma is the missing piece for us," Natasha Cloud said after Game 2. "From last year's to this year's team she the difference-maker in making us a championship team. She's putting us on her back… Emma is an All-Star of her own. I'm extremely proud of the player she's grown into."
The first leg of the WNBA Semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces in Washington saw different ways Meesseman can be the reason why the Mystics lift the trophy at the end of the season.
Game 1 she led all scorers with a season-high 27 points. Thirteen of those came in a 26-point third quarter that erased a seven-point lead for Las Vegas. Her explosion allowed the Mystics to surge back into the game. Complementary to Delle Donne's 25 points, they were a dynamic duo. Las Vegas couldn't hone in on one of them when they were both on the court. Washington won by two.
Game 2 the Belgian matched that performance. Meesseman tied a career-high with 30 points going 11-for-19 from the field and 5-for-7 from 3-point range. A majority of those (22) came in the second and third quarters to take firm control of the game. Each time the Aces attempted to come back, Meesseman would hit another dagger. Washington won by 12.
"She ain't missing any shots. That's the main thing," Aces' Liz Cambage said on how they've been unable to stop Meesseman. "She came out tonight – [the Mystics] all shot so well tonight."
Put her in the paint and the flex player posted up and drove against the 6-8 Cambage, or forced her out to clear the lane for other Mystics. Stretch Meesseman out to the arc and she knocked down threes over shorter guards. She's a Swiss army knife for the Mystics, versatility that is similar to the 2019 MVP Delle Donne.
That comparison is drawn from her own teammates, including Cloud. One that Meesseman believes to be a big honor.
Last year Meesseman missed the season to take a break and work on her game. She was winded after the 2017 season and the toll that it took on her. While away from the WNBA, a lot of her time on the court was with the Belgium national team. There she had to be the team's primary scorer.
This year in Washington, she's applied that mentality and aggressiveness to her play. While she's come off the bench for essentially the whole season, Meesseman has been a huge asset. Now, she's starting with a big line-up for Washington.
"You can't just have one or two [go-to players]. We need three or four to win a championship and [Messeeman has] embraced that this last part of the season," Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said. "She was aggressive, she was looking for the ball, just there is a whole different body language to her about this right now."
Only twice this season had the 6-4 forward reached 20 points for the Mystics. One was in the penultimate game in the regular season. Granted, she missed 11 games for her national team obligations, but it has been rare to see this explosion.
"Emma has got a chip on her shoulder. She clearly was watching last year and wasn't happy with the result," Delle Donne told NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller. "Emma is playing unreal basketball. She is so good, one of the greatest in the world. To add a piece like that and for her to step up like this has been so big for us."
But Meesseman doesn't see herself as being the difference-maker. She's just playing basketball and trying to contribute to an already established championship-level team.
During Game 1's postgame press conference Meesseman shut down being labeled as the "missing piece."
"I'm not sure I agree with that-"
"Emma, stop it," Delle Donne said. "We didn't win Emma. We need you. I'll take your 27 and 10 any night."
She still isn't embracing that title after Game 2. Although if you ask the rest of the Mystics, Meesseman is alone in that regard.
Whether she likes it or not, Meesseman is the clear difference in the Mystics roster as opposed to the team that fell short in the WNBA Finals. When league historians look back at the 2018 and 2019 Mystics teams, she will stick out.
The only question is will the "missing piece" push the Mystics to where they want to go.
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