ATLANTA — Trailing the Washington Mystics by five points in the third quarter Tuesday night, a second consecutive home playoff loss was staring right at the Atlanta Dream.
The Dream had trailed by as many as nine points. At times they looked out of sorts, out of whack and out of gas. A turnover here, a missed lay-up there, a bad pass over there. And the Mystics took advantage.
But then, at the 2:20 mark in the third period, Jessica Breland made a statement. She got switched on to Ariel Atkins on the right wing. Atkins, handling the ball, drove towards Breland. Nothing. She tried to spin. Nothing. She tried to raise up for a fadeaway jumper. Smack.
Breland snatched the ball out of the air, and before passing it to Tiffany Hayes, looked around as if to say, “Are you serious?” You come at Jessica Breland, you best not miss.
That block ignited a 11-4 run for the Dream that helped them retake the lead from the Washington Mystics in Game Two of the WNBA semifinals. The two sides fought in the final period, but the Dream emerged victorious, 78-75, at McCamish Pavilion.
Breland was effective on offense, defense and the glass, tallying 10 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks in the win.
“My teammates react a lot to me and blocking shots and my defense,” Breland said. “I think everybody off the bench was really hype about (the block on Atkins). I just knew that she wasn’t going to score on me again. We challenge each other to play really great defense and I knew that if I step up my defense, then my teammates will follow.”
The Dream also got a big boost from Alex Bentley off the bench. The guard acquired in a mid-season trade with the Connecticut Sun led Atlanta in scoring with 22 points, while also dishing out a pair of assists.
Bentley helped seal the win for the Dream with 14 seconds left when she swiped the ball away from Kristi Toliver. Bentley was fouled immediately and hit one of two shots from the charity stripe to put the Dream ahead by a full three points.
“The game-plan going into tonight was to be aggressive defensively,” Bentley said. “I’m trying to make it as difficult for her as I can. Kristi Toliver is a great player, a great scorer. We really needed that (steal). I’m glad I got it.”
Delle Donne exits with injury
Elena Delle Donne led the Mystics with 27 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, but was unable to finish the game due to a knee injury.
With about three minutes to play and leading by two points, Delle Donne’s left leg slid and appeared to bend in a way that it typically shouldn’t. She went down, grimacing, and seemed to be in pain. She was helped off the floor by teammates.
“It’s an emotional time,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said. “We don’t know what the status of Elena is going to be. Obviously, she’s a huge factor in what we do. So, it’s hard to comment about what to expect until we see where we are when we get to Thursday’s practice.”
Delle Donne gave the Dream fits all night, driving to the basket with ease, creating offense for others and crashing the glass. She shot over top of defenders with little trouble so often it almost seemed like she was shooting from a ladder. The 6-foot-6 Delaware native shot 10-of-20 from the floor and 3-of-6 from three-point range.
A floater from Delle Donne near the end of the second quarter gave the Mystics their first lead of the game. Back-to-back shots from Delle Donne from behind the arc led the Mystics to a six-point lead in the third quarter.
The Mystics are heading home for Games 3 and 4, but without Delle Donne, wins won’t be so easy. Her status for Friday’s game remains unclear. Delle Donne told reporters after the game, via the Mystics media relations, that the swelling wasn’t “terrible,” that she could walk and that she is “hopeful” to play in Game 3.
“Her presence speaks volumes,” Toliver said of Delle Donne. “It’s all about the next person stepping up. Whether or not she can play Friday, we have to show up and give our best effort and that’s what we’ll get.”
Said Dream head coach Nicki Collen: “I wouldn’t count (Delle Donne) out. She seemed to be walking around just fine after the game. It does change the game-plan, of course. You’re taking one of the best five players in the world out of the equation. We’ll adjust accordingly, but we’re going to prepare as if she’s going to play.”
Bentley big, again
The July 9 trade Atlanta general manager and 2018 WNBA Executive of the Year Chris Sienko made that brought Bentley to the Dream looked like an excellent move again Tuesday, as Bentley came off the bench to lead Atlanta in scoring for the second straight game. This time, her scoring efforts helped lead the Dream to a win.
The 5-foot-8 guard played 23 minutes and shot 8-of-14 from the floor and connected on a pair of three-pointers.
She scored nine points in her first seven minutes on the floor, and had back-to-back dazzling plays in the second quarter: A drive for an easy lay-up that left Delle Donne on the hardwood and then a three-pointer that extended the Dream’s lead.
While the Dream were unable to contain Delle Donne, the Mystics had trouble stopping Bentley.
“Alex Bentley is a spark off the bench for them,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said. “So, we need to be prepared and ready to check her when she comes in the game. In both of these games she’s come in and hit early shots. If we can disrupt her then I think that makes a difference.”
Collen uses bench in spurts
Just seven players saw the floor for the Dream in their Game 1 loss to the Mystics. This time around, Collen reached deeper into her depth on the bench, playing Imani McGee Stafford and Blake Dietrick in key moments.
With her mother Pam watching from the stands, McGee-Stafford made an impact as soon as she stepped on the floor in the second quarter, blocking a shot and scoring two points. She went on to score another bucket in the win, as well grab four rebounds.
Dietrick didn’t stuff the stat sheet, but gave Renee Montgomery much needed rest at certain parts of the game and also provided stellar defense in its closing moments.
“I thought Blake gave us great minutes when she played. I thought she could give us a defensive presence in a short spurt,” Collen said. “And I wanted to go to Imani. I knew she was chomping at the bit. I thought, other than her missed box-out on an air ball, her minutes were really good. I’m super proud of her for coming back after not playing in the last game.”
Breland leads the way
Tiffany Hayes added 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the win for the Dream, while Elizabeth Williams added 10 points and 11 rebounds.
While several Dream players had positive impacts on the game, it was Breland, from start to finish, who led the Dream.
She started the game with energy, notching four blocks, four rebounds and four points in her first seven minutes on the floor. She was often tasked with guarding Delle Donne, and did her best job to stick to her like a stamp on an envelope.
“I knew I had to make shots hard for Delle Donne and whoever was coming off her screen,” Breland said. “I talk to all my teammates. I sat down with each one of them and we talked about what we could do differently and what we felt like needed to be done to get the job done.”
As Hayes exited the locker room Tuesday night, she overheard a reporter ask Williams a question about her partner in the post. Williams told the reporter, “Breland was awesome tonight,” and Hayes yelled from down the hallway, “Yeah she was!”
“(Breland) has the hardest assignment in guarding Delle Donne and she was on it,” Williams said. “Getting big plays like (Breland’s block on Atkins) fires us up because she’s working so hard. I think everyone wanted to get going after that.”