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WASHINGTON, DC -- Something strange happened on Tuesday night, late in the Washington Mystics’ 85-81 win over the Minnesota Lynx. The Mystics were inbounding the ball near halfcourt with 25 seconds left, and the Lynx, down by four, desperately needed the ball back.
Instead, Tina Charles—who already had a game-high 27 points and should therefore have been a top defensive target—received a wide-open pass from Shavonte Zellous and realized there was no one blocking her roughly 30-foot path to the basket.
“I was so wide open that I thought I was shooting at the wrong basket,” Charles said postgame, crediting teammate Ariel Atkins for setting the screen that led to a defensive breakdown by the Lynx. “But [Zellous] told me to keep going.”
Assisted by Zellous in more ways than one, Charles made that layup and added two free throws with 6.4 seconds remaining to finish with 31 points. That marked the fourth time in the past six games that she has scored at least 30 points—and one of the other two games was a 29-point outing against Connecticut. Before this year, she had never had more than two 30-point games in a single season.
Charles did her work efficiently, shooting 9-for-18 from the field, 3-for-6 from 3-point range and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. The 6’4 center and 2012 WNBA MVP also had eight rebounds, one assist and one steal while playing tough defense on another All-WNBA center, Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles.
“Man, Tina is a really special player,” Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud said after the game. “… It's been just an honor to watch her. Her work ethic, her attention to detail, her leadership has been really, really good … Tina is just an all-around threat, from the 3-point line to the pull-up jump shot to her finesse around the rim. She's a really special player and we're lucky to have her.”
Charles is now averaging 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.8 steals per game on 46.3 percent shooting from the field. She leads the WNBA in scoring by a mile: The gap between her and second place (3.7 points per game) is larger than the gap between second and seventh place (2.5 points per game). And even though she uses more of her team’s offensive possessions than anyone in the league, she ranks in the 98th percentile in player efficiency rating.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the preseason, plenty of observers wondered whether Charles would be an efficient contributor in DC after she sat out the 2020 season and shot a career-low 38.9 percent from the field in 2019. Charles hasn’t just put those concerns to bed; she has announced herself as a clear MVP candidate.
In just her third game with the Mystics, she scored a near-career-high 34 points against her former team, New York, and she hasn’t stopped scoring since, from everywhere on the court. Her 3-point shooting, a priority for her this past offseason, is perhaps the most noticeable improvement in her game: She is shooting 34.1 percent from behind the arc, just shy of her previous career high of 34.8 percent, despite taking many more attempts than she ever has (5.5 per game, compared to her previous career high of 2.9).
“I'm loving the fact that I don't have to post up every single time in order to be a threat, but I can be in pick-and-rolls, I can dive to the basket, I can get my teammates open when [opponents] start to double- and triple-team me,” Charles said on Tuesday. “So it's been really great to be a part of this organization and within this this offense.”
Charles’ presence is making opponents play a particularly terrible game of “Would You Rather?” If they try to guard her with only one player, the near-automatic result is a 30-point performance. And that generally means good things for the Mystics, who are 3-1 when Charles has scored at least 30 points this season.
On the other hand, if opponents double- (or triple-)team Charles, she is a deft passer with many talented teammates to target. On Saturday, the Las Vegas Aces decided to double-team Charles after she scored 14 points in the first half, which was perhaps the ultimate sign of respect given that their All-WNBA frontcourt of 6’8 Liz Cambage and 6’4 A’ja Wilson should have been one of the best equipped in the league to play one-on-one against Charles. The result? Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen had 32 points and Atkins had a career-high 29.
“I don't have a simple answer on how we're going to slow [Charles],” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve conceded before Tuesday’s game. She mentioned being reluctant to double-team Charles because of the threat of Hines-Allen cutting to the rim—and when that exact situation unfolded late in the second quarter, Reeve immediately called timeout to try to fix what was broken.
“Playing your offense through a post player like [Charles] is incredibly advantageous,” Reeve added. “So not only is [the challenge] limiting her offense, but how she impacts the entirety of the offense.”
Aces coach Bill Laimbeer also had high praise for Charles, whom he coached in New York from 2014 through 2017, before his team played the Mystics on Saturday. “She looks much better and much more comfortable right now than I've ever seen her before,” he said. “She knows what she's doing. She knows that she's counted on to be the leader of this team. … I'm very proud of her and I'm very happy for her as she's found a comfort zone right now.”
The dilemma of how to defend Charles only becomes more acute as the Mystics improve their spacing and on-court chemistry, which were two points of emphasis for the team last week during a break in the schedule. The players and head coach Mike Thibault all said that the team made considerable progress in those areas against the Aces, and it finally paid off in the win column against the Lynx.
“We're a team that, once this clicks, we're a scary fucking team, and you can print that,” Cloud said on Saturday. “We are a scary team that is really unguardable at times and … can back it up on the defensive end, too.” Cloud epitomized that two-way dominance on Tuesday, scoring her 1,000th career point while adding eight assists and a career-high six steals.
“What you're seeing as we get better is you're finding a team that's figuring out who they are, finding their identity,” Atkins added. “… You’ve got to figure [it] out every year. It's always something different. So it's just a matter of figuring it out, and [with] the person to the right and left of you, figure out how to lean on them, how to trust each other and get through it day by day.”
The players continued to develop that trust this week, as Charles and Cloud called a players-only meeting on Monday to discuss the team’s identity. Every player was asked to speak, and Cloud said that the meeting “gave us some direction and guidance as a team” heading into Tuesday’s game. The results were clear all over the stat sheet: the Mystics had 20 assists, four players scored in double figures and the team forced a season-high 23 points off turnovers, showing that the players were locked in and connected on both ends of the court.
When Charles was asked after Tuesday’s game about the factors that led to her standout performance, then, it was only fitting that her response could have applied just as easily to the entire team.
“It's just the work that I put in,” she said. “… The grind goes unnoticed, but the results don't.”