Elena Delle Donne’s vintage performance powers Mystics past Sparks

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LOS ANGELES — Natasha Cloud shouted at DJ Mal-Ski, the Sparks’ in-game DJ, more than 90 minutes before the game began Tuesday night as he stood in front of his turntables inside Crypto.com Arena. She had taken the court to warm up and he had yet to start playing music for the evening.

Cloud, and all of the Mystics, were ready to go early.

The Mystics looked like an offensive juggernaut in the first half of a 94-81 victory over the Sparks, their fourth win in their past five games. Washington (15-10) led 53-44 at halftime, which matched its highest-scoring half of the season, in the first game after the all-star break. The 94 points were also a season high.

“I missed their annoying [behinds],” Cloud said with laugh. “We’re energized. The first half is what it is and the second half is go time. We know what we have in our locker room and so I think we’re just seeing a different focus, too.”

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A 15-7 first-quarter run gave the Mystics a 24-14 lead as Washington never trailed after falling behind 2-0. Washington, which shot 50.8 percent from the field, was almost giddy during the morning shoot-around and that energy carried over to the game.

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We had energy at practice yesterday,” Coach Mike Thibault said. “We had good focus this morning. We’ve been shooting the ball a little bit better, although we didn’t make layups tonight, and it paid off.”

Elena Delle Donne showed exactly why she is a two-time MVP by matching a season high with 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting, including 4 for 5 from beyond the arc. It was her second consecutive game hitting the 26-point mark. The ball was moving and it was a stellar offensive night for the entire team, but Delle Donne consistently made plays that few others in the league can. The Sparks sent multiple defenders throughout the night at the 6-foot-5 forward and it still didn’t matter as she unleashed a bevy of pump fakes, up-and-unders and fadeaways to create space. Thibault called it a “vintage game” from the franchise cornerstone.

Best player in the world,” Cloud said. “She allows our offense to flow. She allows my job to be a lot easier. Teams have to really figure out what they’re going to do to maintain her and then play the rest of us. So just her presence alone.

“Elena doesn’t even have to touch the ball if she doesn’t want to and she would make all of our jobs a lot easier. Just her poise, her leadership, her experience, and her IQ on both ends of the floor just makes us better.”

Still, Los Angeles hung around and trailed by just five with 6:13 remaining in the fourth quarter when Delle Donne and Cloud slammed the door shut. The Mystics used a 14-4 run to open a 15-point lead with Delle Donne burying three three-pointers and Cloud adding one of her own. Cloud scored 10 of her season-high 21 points in the fourth quarter and also had nine assists and four rebounds.

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When Tash is scoring and attacking, we’re terrifying,” Delle Donne said. “She’s worked so much on her game and you see it and you see the confidence in her. … I don’t know how Tash does it. Her motor is ridiculous. The amount of minutes she plays. She’s always playing the best offensive player on the other team, and then she has to come down and run our offense. But she does a phenomenal job.

“I don’t ever want to play with anyone else.”

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough scored 12 points off the bench and Ariel Atkins finished with 10 after playing in the All-Star Game on Sunday.

Katie Lou Samuelson and Brittney Sykes scored 16 apiece as the Sparks were without Nneka Ogwumike, who was out with a non-covid illness. Whereas turnovers were an issue the last time Washington ventured to Los Angeles, the Mystics scored 27 points off 18 Sparks turnovers this time around.

The game had a little extra incentive for the Mystics, who acquired the right to swap first-round picks in the 2023 in a draft-day deal with the Atlanta Dream in April. Atlanta owns the Sparks’ first-round pick next year, so the Mystics would benefit from Los Angeles being as far down in the standings as possible.

I think about that every week when I watch them play somebody else, too,” Thibault said before the game. “I never like to wish [ill] on very many teams, but when you have a chance to get their pick and it can be better than the one we have, you’ve got to feel that way.”

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