It is a rematch of a WNBA semifinal playoff series but with considerably less starpower Wednesday when the defending champion Washington Mystics face the Las Vegas Aces in Bradenton, Fla.
The Mystics defeated the Aces in four games in last year's series, which showed the first glimpses of just how good forward Emma Meesseman could be. The Belgian totaled 57 points in leading Washington to victories in the first two games, a coming out party that culminated with the Mystics winning the title and her claiming WNBA Finals MVP honors.
In the "wubble," Meesseman is being asked to do more for Washington this season. Elena Delle Donne is not with the team as she recovers from offseason back surgery, and key offseason acquisition Tina Charles opted to sit out with a medical exemption.
Meesseman is doing what she can, and she is getting help from Aerial Powers and Ariel Atkins. The latter has scored 46 points in her last two games, but her 24 were not enough Saturday when Washington (3-1) lost 88-86 to Chicago. Meesseman finished with nine points, nine rebounds, and six assists on 4-of-10 shooting.
"From other teams, we have a target on our back," Mystics coach Mike Thibault told The Washington Post. "From ourselves, we want to prove that it's not an accident. That we're playing good basketball. When you're playing a good team every other day, it kind of ramps up.
"You can feel it. It's like being in a tournament and everybody's here. You see other people. Other coaches say something or other players say something to your players. You feel, in the bubble situation, a little bit more of a focus on you because everyone talks about things."
The Aces (2-2) are also without a pair of key cogs from last season as center Liz Cambage opted out of playing and guard Kelsey Plum is sidelined with a torn ACL. They signed Angel McCoughtry to pick up some of the scoring slack, and the veteran guard has averaged 14.8 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 53.5 percent.
As McCoughtry has stepped up, A'ja Wilson has been steady. The forward leads Las Vegas in scoring (19.8) and rebounding (9.5) after totaling 19 points and eight boards in a 79-70 win over Dallas on Sunday. McCoughtry suffered through her first off game, finishing with only four points, but five Aces were in double figures as Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young accounted for 20 of the team's 27 bench points.
"I think that's who we're going to be, especially when Angel (McCoughtry) isn't out there to give us even bigger firepower," Aces coach Bill Laimbeer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal about his team's balance. "If we move the ball, we're capable scorers, capable of attacking the basket."
Prior to the playoff series, Washington won two of the three regular-season games last year, including a 99-70 game that was completed a year to the day of this game after an earthquake registering 7.1 on the Richter scale centered near Los Angeles took place at halftime of the game played July 5.