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Mystics’ Kristi Toliver is back on court as a teammate, and a coach

Just in time for the playoffs, Toliver is assisting the team in multiple ways

WASHINGTON — Over the past month, Natasha Cloud would return to her locker during halftime of Washington Mystics away games and find text messages waiting for her.

What are you seeing out there?

Here’s how you should handle this assignment …

Here’s what you can do better …

Whether Cloud was shooting 1-for-3 in the first half against the Chicago Sky or 4-for-6 through two quarters against the Dallas Wings, Cloud would receive instructions on her phone on the minutiae of basketball X’s and O’s.

But the messages weren’t coming from a former coach or a college teammate, nor from one of Cloud’s parents.

The person blowing up her phone was Mystics teammate Kristi Toliver.

Toliver, who missed the last 11 games of the regular season after suffering a bone bruise and strain of the medial collateral ligament in her right knee on Aug. 8 against the Indiana Fever, would stay behind in D.C. when the team traveled for away games. While the injury, the first major one of her professional career, could’ve pushed the 11-year veteran into isolation during rehab, she instead became an unofficial member of the Mystics coaching staff.

Kristi Toliver (center) of the Washington Mystics huddles with her teammates before a game against the Chicago Sky on Sept. 8 at the St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C.

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The 32-year-old guard was an integral part of the Mystics winning 10 of their final 11 regular-season games despite not logging a single minute on the court. She coached her teammates from her cellphone. She coached them in practice in D.C. She coached them in the middle of games before head coach Mike Thibault could reach the huddle.

“I’ve just tried to stay engaged any way I can because it’s tough, especially when they go on the road and I’m here by myself, and obviously I’m watching the games, but just wanting them to know that I’m locked in the best I can be and just try to help them along the way,” she told The Undefeated hours before Game 1 of the Mystics’ semifinal matchup with the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday.

Toliver finally returned to action in Game 1, contributing eight points to help the Mystics win 97-95 and take a 1-0 series lead. But her presence has made a difference even when she hasn’t been on the floor.

Coaching from the sideline is nothing new for Toliver. This past offseason, she forwent playing overseas to work as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards — a job for which she was paid only $10,000 because of WNBA salary cap rules — joining an illustrious (and growing) list of female basketball players taking on coaching or front-office roles on the men’s side. To name a few: Retired six-time WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon is entering her sixth season as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs; Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird was hired as basketball operations associate for the Denver Nuggets last November; and the last two championship-winning coaches in the all-male BIG3 league were Nancy Lieberman and Lisa Leslie.

“You see a lot more women coaching on the men’s side now,” Aces guard Jackie Young told The Undefeated. “It’s just great for women’s basketball, women in general.”

Thibault didn’t even have to ask Toliver to take on an “assistant coaching” role after she went down in early August. He just expected it.

“I know she’s going to do that,” Thibault told The Undefeated on Wednesday. “She texts players when we’re on the road, she talked to Tash [Cloud]. When she was at home games, she’s talking to people in the huddle before I get in the huddle. She’s always done that beforehand, so I didn’t expect it to be any different, and maybe more, when she wasn’t playing.”

Kristi Toliver sits on the Washington Wizards’ bench during a game against the Houston Rockets on Nov. 26, 2018, at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Toliver served as an assistant coach with the Wizards during the WNBA offseason.

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Toliver added: “I just kind of knew and felt that in my absence of playing I needed to step up in a different way. It helped, obviously, with the offseason with the Wizards, I was already kind of in that form, so it was a natural thing, and I knew that they still needed me. If not anything, they needed my voice.”

Toliver said she watches a lot of game tapes of the Mystics and their opponents, first as a fan or teammate and then as a scout. She told reporters Tuesday morning that the previous night she had rewatched the Aces’ second-round elimination game against the Chicago Sky.

Her scouting report?

“[The Aces] struggle — it’s interesting because they have the highest pace in the league — but they struggle with pace. They struggle with getting the ball up and down, and that’s what Chicago did pretty well, getting those leak-outs.”

Mystics guard Ariel Atkins credits Toliver’s advanced basketball knowledge with helping her break down plays and film and showing her how to best pressure other guards without fouling, by disrupting without being too overzealous.

“It’s one thing to have a point guard, but it’s [another] thing to have a point guard with a high IQ that can do a lot of different things to set up a lot of people and also set up herself,” Atkins, 23, told The Undefeated. (Atkins also wanted to make it clear that she, unlike Cloud, doesn’t read texts during halftime: “My mom and family be texting me. … My mom’s like, ‘You didn’t put your lip gloss on.’ My dad’s like, ‘You almost fell.’ ”)

Cloud, meanwhile, commends Toliver for remaining the team’s leader and emotional core throughout her recovery.

“She’s a coach, and that really helped in her absence, still being a part of the team and bringing that ‘coach’ mindset to the floor as opposed to the ‘player’ mindset,” Cloud said.

But don’t get it twisted. Toliver still wants to play ball. As teammate Shatori Walker-Kimbrough fidgeted with Toliver’s knee brace one seat over before Game 1, Toliver said: “I hope she breaks it so that means I don’t have to wear it.”

On Tuesday night, Toliver returned to the Mystics’ lineup, albeit off the bench. She struggled through the first three quarters, missing all three of her shot attempts before hitting her first basket, an open 3-pointer, with less than 6 seconds remaining in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, she scored five of her eight total points (in a somewhat limited 23 minutes) on a couple of buckets that came over the outstretched arms of Aces forward A’ja Wilson. Toliver’s play down the stretch helped Washington to a nail-biting victory.

“She just kind of carries us on her back and just plays so fearless,” Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 and 2019 league MVP, told reporters after Game 1. “She’s clutch. That’s just what Kristi does.”

And when the time comes, Thibault is certain Toliver has a future in coaching.

“She’ll be a head coach someday if she wants to be,” he told The Undefeated. “She has that ability in her.”

Martenzie is an associate editor for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"