What to know for deciding Game 5 of Mystics-Sun WNBA Finals

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Washington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne, left, and Connecticut Sun's Jasmine Thomas fight for position under the basket during the first half in Game 4 of basketball's WNBA Finals, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Washington Mystics' Elena Delle Donne, left, and Connecticut Sun's Jasmine Thomas will fight for their first WNBA championships on Thursday. (AP)

The Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun will conclude their seasons on Thursday night. It’s simply a matter of which will hoist the WNBA trophy for the first time in their franchise’s history.

The Mystics’ Natasha Cloud guaranteed it and Kristi Toliver, the only player on the floor who has won a title, wore it ahead of Game 4. But the league favorite missed its first shot at taking it. The Connecticut Sun have quietly — and sometimes not so quietly for Courtney Williams — proven time and again they’re every bit the No. 2 seed they deserve to be.

It all comes down to Game 5 at Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C. It’s the fourth series to have gone the distance in five years for the WNBA. The Mystics were swept by the Seattle Storm in 2018.

A few additional things to know as well as the keys to the series ahead of the final tip-off on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET.

First quarters determined the series

The first quarter of each of the four games have been eerily similar. Take a look at the scores.

Game 1: 30-17

Game 2: 17-29

Game 3: 32-17

Game 4: 17-32

The team that won the quarter went on to win the game. That was the Mystics in Games 1 and 3, while the Sun evened the series in Games 2 and 4. And in a randomly fascinating note, the losing team scored exactly 17 points.

In a first for the series, the Mystics were able to fully overcome the deficit — which at 18 points was the largest of their season — in a thrilling final quarter of Game 4. They were more lead changes in that 10 minutes than the series combined up to that point.

“It’s been hard in this series,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault told reporters. “Whoever’s dug themselves a hole — every team has come back in this series. Both teams have come back. But it’s hard if you’re looking at the deficit we were looking at.”

Losing the first quarter doesn’t mean game over, but both teams have shown already in the series that it can successfully hold off the late rally, no matter how strong. That fight will be even fuller on Thursday.

Sun will ride or die on the starters

The play of bench players showed up most prominently in Game 4 when Sun head coach Curt Miller wanted to rest some of his starters, but the Mystics outscored the Sun, 28-12, in the third and eventually took the lead.

The Sun have played every game of the season with the same starting five — Williams, Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas and Shekinna Stricklen — that has played 250 more minutes than any other lineup in the league, per the WNBA. They are used to playing every minute and the game will ride or die on their performance.

The Sun bench has played around 20 minutes combined per game in the finals (one-tenth of the total minutes) with showings of eight, nine, 21 (15 from Bria Holmes) and 10 points, respectively.

The Mystics’ bench numbers in both playoff series are skewed, but it shows the depth the team can utilize. Toliver came off the bench against the Las Vegas Aces and returned to the starting lineup against the Sun. Emma Meesseman, a finals MVP candidate averaging 16.8 points per game, is the team’s sixth player and is being tasked to do more with league MVP Elena Delle Donne less than 100 percent.

Injuries are mounting for stars

It’s the end of the season, which means injuries are of course piling up. And for professional women’s basketball players who perform year-round, it can be a constant. While everyone is dealing with something, there are multiple players to keep a particular eye on in game 5.

For the Sun, it’s Alyssa Thomas’ stellar productivity. She is playing with torn labrums in each shoulder and was a 50 percent free-throw shooter in the regular season, yet hit 9 of 10 last game that helped seal the deal. Thomas is 18 of 22 (81.8%) at the line in the finals and has played all but 20 seconds of the series. She played all but three minutes of the three-game semifinal series.

“I really want a championship and I’m going to do whatever it takes, play as many minutes as I have to play to win a title,” she told reporters, via The Athletic. “It’s one last game. One last 40 minutes for the season and I’m going to give it my all.”

For the Mystics, it’s Delle Donne, Toliver and Ariel Atkins.

Delle Donne is the most high profile star to keep a watch on. She left Game 2 with back spams less than two minutes into the contest and made a surprise return for Game 3 despite a herniated disc that is pinching a nerve. While she looked better Tuesday night than she did Sunday, she’s still not her MVP self. She took six and eight shot attempts, respectively, in the two recent games and had only one assist. The team doesn’t live or die with her, but she is the MVP for a reason and how much she can give will have a large impact.

Toliver missed nine games at the end of the season due to a bone bruise and MCL strain in her knee. She ditched the brace during the semifinal series against the Las Vegas Aces and looked shaken up during a drive Tuesday night when she got caught between two Sun players driving to the basket. Toliver, who won a title with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016, has looked less rusty with each game but she’ll now play her third game in five days while still dealing with that recovery.

Atkins is also playing with a bad back after it seized while she bent down for something days before game 3. The 23-year-old had 14 points and shot 3 of 6 from range in the last game.

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