The Dream take a 2-1 series lead over the Mystics in WNBA semifinals
WASHINGTON, D.C. — There’s one place you don’t want the best player on your team to be in Game 3 of a best-of-five semifinal series in the WNBA playoffs: The bench.
And yet, that’s where Elena Delle Donne was on Friday night in the Smith Center, as her Washington Mystics lost 81-76 to the Atlanta Dream, and fell behind 2-1 in the series. The 2015 WNBA MVP suffered a bone bruise in her left knee in the waning minutes of Tuesday night’s three-point loss to the Dream in Atlanta, and though everyone breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t suffer ligament damage, the pain was too intolerable for her to play this night.
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The Mystics missed her. They missed the 26 points and 13 rebounds she’s averaging this postseason, they missed the double-teams that she draws, and they missed her ability to create her own shots, and the way she takes over games at the most crucial moments. But even with Delle Donne out, the Mystics had plenty of opportunities to win this game against the Dream, they just simply couldn’t convert. The competitive fire and energy were there; the execution was not.
The starting shooting guards really tell the story in this game: The Mystics’ Kristi Toliver and was only 3-for-15 for seven points, while the Dream’s Tiffany Hayes was 7-for-13 for 23 points and 11 rebounds. Washington simply needs more from Toliver, especially without Delle Donne on the floor.
But, of course, there’s more to it than just an injured Delle Donne, a cold Toliver, and a possessed Hayes. Here’s what else you need to know.
Aerial Powers was the brightest spot for the Mystics. The Mystics traded Tayler Hill and a draft pick to the Dallas Wings in exchange for Powers right before the All-Star break, and goodness did that move pay off on Friday.
Head coach Mike Thibault moved Powers to the power forward spot, a position she hasn’t played for the Mystics all year, and she thrived there off of the bench, finishing the game with 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists. She brought so much energy to the court, and her versatility really allowed the Mystics to thrive in a small lineup. Powers enjoyed her time at the four, because it allowed her to be closer to the basket.
“I was happy,” she told reporters after the game. “Coming from a guard and trying to rebound is so hard coming from the perimeter, and trying to get in there and rebound. I felt like at least me, I would already be down there and trying to box the girls out and out jump them if I can and get some rebounds.”
A small Mystics’ lineup took center stage. The starting lineup for the Mystics, from 1-5, was: Natasha Cloud, Toliver, Ariel Atkins, Tianna Hawkins, and LaToya Sanders. Hawkins was taking the place of Delle Donne at the four, and while she wasn’t awful — Hawkins had seven points and nine rebounds in just over 19 minutes — she wasn’t able to find open shots. And Cloud had a very off game, going just 1-for-7 for three points.
So, for most of the second half, the Mystics played with Sanders at center, surrounded by four guards: Powers, Toliver, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, and Ariel Atkins. In press, Thibault said this was his attempt to shake things up and surprise the Dream. It almost worked.
“I wanted to make them have to play differently on the defensive end, spread the floor a little bit. With Aerial Powers and Ariel Atkins, you have two people that can shoot jump shots and drive. I thought that would be a factor and it was,” Thibault said. “You could be undersized and still be a good rebounder. I thought we got that tonight. It wasn’t perfect or pretty, but I just felt that gave us a better chance once I saw the start of the first and the third quarter when our starting group was struggling at both ends of the floor to be honest.”
Kristi Toliver is in a shooting slump. There’s no sugar coating it: Toliver is struggling right now. She hasn’t made more than four shots in any of the four playoff games, and has only made two three-pointers in a playoff game this postseason. On Friday, she was a staggering 1-for-9 from beyond the arc. And yet, Thibault kept the 10-year veteran on the court for all 40 minutes.
When I asked in press why he stuck with her, he was very frank: “What are my options?”
Toliver will get hot again. That’s what she does. The Mystics better hope it’s soon.
The Atlanta defense is confident. Of course, the Dream like to think their defense has something to do with Toliver’s shooting woes. In press, Tiffany Hayes said that containing Toliver was a targeted team effort.
“I think the key is me and [Alex] Bentley just take turns,” Hayes said. “Doesn’t get us, I mean, gets us tired because she’s all over the place but when I can take a break sometimes when Bentley comes in and then she takes a break when I’m in the game guarding her. “It’s good to have two people that have great defense on her all the times because she can go off at any moment. She’s a great player. And then everybody helping out if she beats us on the drive…Just fortunate to have a lot of people who can guard.”
Atlanta can close out games. Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen pointed out that the Dream are 18-0 this year when they have a lead heading into the fourth quarter. Heavens that’s good.
LaToya Sanders, aka ‘Steady Eddy,’ spoiled the Block Party. The Dream have two of the best shot-blocking defensive players in the league, in Jessica Breland and Elizabeth Williams. However, on Friday night, Sanders took over inside and blocked six shots — a Mystics playoff record.
“LaToya [Sanders] did her normal, steady-eddy job, rebounding, scoring and covering up for everybody else,” Thibault said in press.
Rookies continued to impress. I haven’t really mentioned Atkins yet, but the rookie guard was 6-for-10 for 17 points and 8 rebounds on Friday. She continues to impress with her ability to find her way to the exact right spot on the court, and to anticipate the ball movement so exquisitely. The other Mystics rookie, Myisha Hines-Allen, also got some playing time on Friday in Delle Donne’s absence. In 7:38, she was 2-for-3 for four points. (It was surprising, however, that she didn’t grab any rebounds — she was out-jumped by the Dream a few times.)
On the Dream’s side, Monique Billings had a good showing off of the bench as well. The future is bright!
Natasha Cloud got right back to work. Immediately after the game, Cloud was back on court at the Smith Center practicing her shooting. She had a rough game on Friday, and was benched for the fourth quarter. But she’s been an integral part of the Mystics’ success this season, and is such a hard worker that there’s no doubt she’ll do everything in her power to turn it around on Sunday.
The Delle Donne question remains. Delle Donne is as tough as they come, and one of the fiercest competitors in the league. She wants to win a championship, and she wants to win it now. The Mystics’ season will be on the line Sunday afternoon, and if there’s any possible way she can play, she will. But bone bruises are no joke, and Sunday’s game is coming soon. Time simply might not be on the Mystics’ side this year.