Trash talk livens up WNBA semis

MAKING A STATEMENT: Mystics center Emma Meesseman drives with past Aces center A'ja Wilson, right, during the first half of Game 2 in their WNBA playoff series. Meesseman took the 2018 season off and has responded in a big way in her return to the court. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

LAS VEGAS – Natasha Cloud kicked off the Washington Mystics' practice Monday ahead of Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals with a message yelled loud and clear.

"Let's go, weight room crew!" Cloud shouted across the court at Mandalay Bay Events Center, where the Mystics had taken a 92-75 beating at the hands of the Las Vegas Aces in Sunday night's Game 3. Cloud's new nickname for her team was a reference to Aces' center Liz Cambage's comments on ESPN after a physical game in which the 6-foot-8 center dominated the paint and scored 28 points.

"If they can't handle it," Cambage said, "get in the weight room or get out of the post."

A video of Cloud and forward Myisha Hines-Allen was posted on social media not long after, with the caption "We'll show you the weight room." And with that, trash-talking became an added element to this best-of-five WNBA semifinal series that the Mystics lead 2-1. Game 4 is Tuesday, and don't be surprised if things get chippy.

"I'm the petty one," Cloud said with a laugh, referring to the fact that most of her Mystics teammates don't post clap-backs on social media or spout pithy quips in front of cameras. "I don't really get into the trash talk, but when it comes to protecting my teammates and having my teammates' back, I'm the petty one with the loud mouth. If you see me on the court doing push-ups tomorrow - I might do that."

In terms of backing up players, the Mystics have Cloud, and the Aces have Coach Bill Laimbeer.

Asked Monday what he thought of Cambage's comments on ESPN - which likely specifically referred to the Mystics' slim, 6-2 center LaToya Sanders, who has guarded Cambage all series - Laimbeer said, "I think [Cambage] is correct.

"I mean, she's big, she's tall, she's the strongest player on the inside in there, why are people complaining? That's who she is, that's why we got her. . . .They can't guard her one-on-one, she overpowers people, okay, that's basketball. Why would somebody complain about that?"

The Aces and Mystics' off-court comments only highlight what Game 3 made apparent: This series is a clash between two teams that take fundamentally opposite approaches to the game.

Fourth-seeded Las Vegas had the highest defensive rating of any team in the league during the regular season and led the WNBA with an average of 38.8 rebounds. When the Aces played to their strengths Sunday, they came away with a win that was predicated on sharp, aggressive defense and an offense that started with Cambage and fellow big A'ja Wilson: The Aces had 46 points in the paint to the Mystics' 22.

Washington, on the other hand, earned the top seed in the playoffs with a record-setting offense predicated on ball movement and three-pointers. The Mystics won Games 1 and 2 at Entertainment and Sports Arena by shooting with efficiency and making 19 three-pointers over two games.

They even approach trash talk differently.

"We're a team of personalities, there's no question about it," Laimbeer said. "We have some talent in these personalities, and sometimes, it's okay. This is an emotional sport . . . yeah, we love this stuff."

Said Washington Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault: "The trash talking is not going to do anybody any good, at all. It's which team plays closer to their potential. We're not all of a sudden going to become a grind-it-out, physical, half-court team to try to match them. That's not happening. They try to do some of the running with us, but they aren't going to shoot some of the threes that we do. So, who can impose their will on the game longer? Just do that. They got to this point for a reason, we got to this point for a reason. But we've won twice on this court already [in the regular season]. Our team knows that."

The Mystics believe they were too stagnant on offense Sunday and that the way to beat the Aces' strong defense is to play their own game better - move the ball more laterally to create open shots for perimeter players and don't get hung up if the officials let physical play continue.

But Cloud also thinks her teammates will walk into Mandalay Bay on Tuesday with extra motivation to beat the Aces - and book their second-straight appearance in the WNBA Finals - thanks to all the extracurricular chatter.

"Absolutely," Cloud said. "Again, we didn't hear that the first two games when Emma scored 57 points and was asked about what makes her successful, all she said was, 'My shots go in the basket.' That's humility, that's who we are. All that trash-talking doesn't really affect us, it just adds fuel to the fire. People forget we're up 2-1. If we play our game, we'll come out on top."

Asked Monday if she too would be using the off-court talk as motivation for Game 4, Cambage said she hadn't even seen the Mystics' responses to her comments. The Aussie said she's used to extra attention from opposing teams.

"I'm not on social media, so I haven't even seen what they're doing, but damn. If one sentence is going to get in people's heads like that? I don't know," Cambage said. "I'm in your head, and I'm not even stressed about it."