Perseverance puts Mystics on brink of clinching WNBA playoff bid

12:38 PM ET

Suffice to say, a lot has changed for the Mystics since the last time they played the Sparks. That was July 2, when forward Elena Delle Donne and guard Taylor Hill were still starters for Washington.

Hill was lost for the season on July 14 to an ACL injury suffered in a game against Indiana. Delle Donne (ankle) was hurt that same night and missed the July 22 All-Star Game. She came back July 25 against San Antonio, but suffered another injury on July 30 — this time, her left (non-shooting) thumb — versus Atlanta. The Mystics hope to have her back perhaps for the end of the regular season.

But until then, they’ve got to focus on who’s available and the immediate task at hand — the Sparks visit Washington on Wednesday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

Los Angeles already has clinched a playoff spot; Washington can clinch a postseason berth with a win Wednesday. We’re at the point of the season where every game feels like it’s for high stakes. Both the Mystics and the Sparks still can really help or hurt their postseason placement.

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  • The Sparks, in the midst of five straight games on the road, are trying to hang onto second place in the WNBA at 19-8. The top two teams get automatic byes into the semifinals. The Mystics (16-10) are in fourth place, which would give them a first-round bye.

    “We’ve faced a lot this season as a team,” said guard Kristi Toliver, in her first season with the Mystics after winning a title with Los Angeles last year. “I think everybody brings a certain amount of leadership in their own way. Everybody does their part.”

    Delle Donne (18.8 PPG) and Hill (13.3) were two of the Mystics’ top-three scorers. Without them, forward Emma Meesseman (13.6 PPG) and Toliver (11.5) are the leading offensive threats. So as Toliver said, everybody else has to contribute more than perhaps they would need to if Delle Donne and Hill were playing.

    One of those contributors is center Krystal Thomas, who in her sixth season in the WNBA has been very important to the Mystics.

    Seattle drafted Thomas out of Duke in 2011. After being waived by the Storm, she finished that season with Phoenix, where she also played in 2012 and ’13. She spent 2014 in Indiana, then didn’t play in the WNBA in 2015 as she gave a stress fracture in her leg time to heal.

    She was in Seattle last year, then signed as a restricted free agent with Washington. Coach Mike Thibault looked beyond Thomas’ stats, knowing how positive an influence she could have personality- and maturity-wise on the Mystics, regardless of how much time she saw. And now she’s a starter for Washington, averaging 25 minutes per game and shooting 62.7 percent from the floor.

    Thomas generally doesn’t score a lot — averaging 6.7 PPG — but she takes advantage of the chances she gets. And she’s coming off a career-high 20 points in the Mystics’ 100-80 victory over Indiana on Saturday.

    “It comes with a lot of hard work and staying mentally focused,” Thomas said of her perseverance in the league. “In the past when I’ve been a role player, I’ve always made sure I was ready if the opportunity came. Being here in D.C., I’ve continued with that same mentality. My opportunity came, and I’ve tried to make the most of it.”

    “Sometimes that can be a bit more difficult to guard than having a focal point. We’re going to see a team that wants to fight hard to get a win.”

    Nneka Ogwumike on how playing the Mystics is different when Elena Delle Donne is out

    The Sparks know they will be facing a different-looking team than the one they beat 99-89 on May 19 and 76-69 on July 2, both in Los Angeles. Delle Donne and Hill combined for 47 points in that first game and 27 in the second.

    “You see other people are stepping up,” Sparks guard Chelsea Gray said of the Mystics. “Krystal Thomas making plays in the paint. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt making plays. They’re finding a way to get things done.”

    Of facing a team like the Mystics without Delle Donne, Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike added: “Sometimes that can be a bit more difficult to guard than having a focal point. We’re going to see a team that wants to fight hard to get a win.”

    Toliver said her past with Los Angeles, where she played seven seasons, is pretty far out of her mind now. But she can pass on what she learned from last year’s lengthy run to the WNBA championship to her Mystics teammates.

    “At his point in the season, you have to really take care of your body and your mind,” Toliver said. “As physical as it is, it’s just as mental. So just trying to stay sharp.

    “Just paying attention to the details. The more film we can watch, the more we can communicate on the floor — talking things through about what everybody sees and feels — it’s those little things that really make a difference.”

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