WASHINGTON, D.C. — We were there, 20,333 of us or so, the seventh-largest crowd in WNBA history and the biggest in 17 years. Legions, maybe even more than half, were wearing the No. 22 of Caitlin Clark, the 22-year-old Indiana Fever rookie.

But about halfway through the third quarter on Friday night, we were waiting for the star to turn it on. Clark was just 3 for 7 from the field, a far cry from the 31.6 points per game she averaged as a senior at Iowa while setting NCAA records.

Just as the thought crossed my mind that this game was starting to get a little sleepy — swish, swish, swish. Clark sank three 3-pointers in the final four minutes of the third quarter.

Oh, I thought, there it is.

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Clark hitting a few threes in a row is like the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, or perhaps the melodic peals of “Free Bird,” immediately recognizable and thrilling — a cue that something special is about to happen. And Clark was special at the finish, scoring 30 points and setting a new high with seven 3-pointers in her WNBA career.

Clark seemed relieved. Though she is averaging 16.8 points and 6.3 assists in her first WNBA season, shooting hasn’t been as easy as it was in college. She bumped up her field goal percentage to 37.3%, but more importantly found her confidence while helping notch the Fever’s fourth win of the season.

“I think it’s a process, more than anything,” she said. “I feel like even my misses were right there. … It’s nice to have a night like that.”

Clark’s celebrity is unlike anything women’s basketball has seen before, drawing record-setting ratings and crowds, but also setting off weird and unsettling discourse that feels largely out of her control. If people could stop debating Clark’s place in women’s basketball long enough to watch and listen to her, they’d see a young woman working hard to match her level of play with the ratings and ticket sales she’s drawing to the sport.

They’d see a player who just got done a stretch of her first 11 pro games in 20 days, and who has been feeling ground down by losing more games (nine) so far in her WNBA career than her entire senior season (five). They’d see someone who is not trying to be a savior of women’s basketball, but simply trying to hang with a more physically demanding level of competition.

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“Maybe some people didn’t know the circumstances of getting into the WNBA,” Clark said afterward. “But me personally, it’s one of the best leagues in the world, and players are really, really good. So I wouldn’t say anything surprised me. I’ve been a fan of this league all my life.”

Personally, I get Clark’s appeal. The most exciting game I saw live in the last year starred Clark when Iowa visited College Park for a sold-out game in February — I managed to buy tickets for myself and my parents before they shot up to hundreds of dollars on the secondary market.

We were dazzled by Clark — her quick decision-making, her sharp passes and, of course, her bold shooting from deep, deep range. Every time she touched the ball, a surge of anticipation shot through the crowd, the expectation of seeing something jaw-dropping.

The W is a different level, however, which Clark’s most ardent supporters are picking up on, even if Clark herself knew it would be tough all along. Against the winless Mystics, Clark had trouble early on creating her own shot. The lanes she used to dart through, the space she used to manufacture for step-backs — the margins are a lot smaller.

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Clark is still one of the league’s best playmakers, but all those people buying tickets didn’t come to see the WNBA’s John Stockton. They came to see her hit buckets from half-court.

Clark can still do that, but it requires more intention. On her second-half threes, many came off of screens, requiring Clark to run circles in the half-court. Success against the length and speed of the WNBA means Clark is no longer strictly an offense to herself, but rather unlocked by scheme and team effort.

“She did start feeling it, and when she gets hot, she can get really dangerous,” Fever coach Christie Sides said. “But we have to do a better job. We have to get her off some screens because she doesn’t have to work so hard.”

Seeing Clark in person only reinforces how far conversations about her have drifted from reality. While fires burn all around her, Clark is doing her damnedest to put them out, or at least not fan the flames.

On Friday, she said she didn’t think Sky guard Chennedy Carter owed her an apology for a flagrant foul away from the ball: “It’s a sport. It’s competitive, it’s not gonna be nice all the time, and that’s not what basketball is. And I think people who play at the highest level understand that.”

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On Sunday, after a full day of pundits fuming about Clark’s supposed snub from the U.S. Olympic team, Clark played it down: “Honestly, no disappointment. It just gives me something to work for; it’s a dream. Hopefully one day I can be there. I think it’s just a little more motivation. You remember that. Hopefully when four years comes back around, I can be there.”

Those shouting that Clark could be a huge boost to the sport in Paris are ignoring history: Women’s basketball hasn’t reached where it is now because of an abundance of resources. It has grown up through the cracks in the concrete, getting whatever little light it can find. The players on the U.S. roster, including Diana Taurasi, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, have all grown the game, too, and Clark owes at least part of her success to their influence.

Clark will also get nearly a month off as the WNBA takes an in-season break. She’s been playing nearly nonstop since November.

“It’s going to be a great month for my body to get rest, get healthy and just get a little time away from basketball and the craziness of everything that’s been going on,” Clark said. “And just find some peace and quiet for myself.”

It’s understandable that Clark would want some time out of the spotlight. It has brought her at the center of unhinged and uninformed debates, while Clark herself always expected this process to be difficult.

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“Not everything’s gonna click overnight,” she said. “But keep working and keep grinding, and it will come over time.”

If Clark keeps applying her work ethic to her game the way she has so far, she’ll be on the Olympic roster in four years. And I suspect that packed arenas will still be waiting for her, ready to see a spectacle.