Meesseman on fire, Toliver returns, Mystics up 1-0
This 2019 WNBA Playoffs run for the Washington Mystics opened with an eventful finish as the Las Vegas Aces made a late surge in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Here are your takeaways from Tuesday night as the Mystics took a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five semifinal.
What to make of the rebounds
The Aces out-rebounded the Mystics 42-30. But why did that happen?
Washington got more shots on goal. They won the turnover battle (13 to 6), spent less time at the line (22 to 10 in attempts) and were only narrowly bested on the offensive glass (12 to 10).
Las Vegas shot the lights out (61.8 percent in the first half). Washington attempted more shots. They finished 11-of-28 from distance, a quality mark, but shot just 5-of-19 in the first half.
The Aces were lucky to not have to pull at least a few more of those out of the bottom of the net. The seven-point halftime lead would have been even slimmer.
As we’ll get to later, signs appear to be pointing in Washington’s favor. Can the Aces really shoot this well again and expect another 5-of-19-like shooting half from the Mystics as they get solid looks from downtown?
D.C. playing a clean game
Remove the two shot-clock violations near the end of the game, and you’re looking at just four turnovers for Washington compared to 13 for Vegas.
The Mystics had the league’s lowest turnover percentage (14.9 percent) in the regular season per WNBA.com while the Aces finished third (17.6).
As we’ve seen all season, the nature of some of Vegas’ turnovers are most deflating. That reared its head Tuesday, turning it over multiple times on simple entry and kick-out passes, once on a sideline out of bounds entry and again inbounding the ball after a made bucket.
Save for a few missed box-outs, this was their lone blemish. A historically great WNBA offense doesn’t need to be given extra chances to push 90 points. And given the ability of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson to overpower Washington’s frontline to establish deep position inside or shoot right over the top, turning a few more of those giveaways into shot attempts should be the leading Game 1 ‘what if?’—even ahead of the controversial finish.
Kristi Toliver played 23 minutes off the bench in her first game action since early August. Her first made field goal didn’t come until the very end of the third quarter.
Wilson didn’t box Emma Meesseman out. The ensuing offensive rebound and kick out set Toliver up for a 3-pointer that gave the Mystics a three-point lead heading into the fourth. (That shot was the start of a 12-2 Mystics run.)
Toliver’s other two buckets came off the bounce in the fourth, both over Wilson—one two-pointer and one triple.
While Toliver did set Meesseman and Sanders up nicely on the move in pick and roll for clean looks, Washington’s stagnated at some key moments in crunch time. Were some expecting her to take over on those possessions?
As an opponent, you’d hope to see some ‘rust’ from Toliver. The Aces may have already missed their best opportunity to capitalize on whatever amount of it was actually there.
Meesseman can’t miss
Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault started big with Meesseman in place of Toliver or Aerial Powers, who had been extremely productive in extended minutes during Toliver’s absence.
The decision worked out quite well.
Meesseman made five consecutive shots at two different points in the game. She finished with a game-high 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting (2-4 3PT).
She was an excellent two-point jump shooter in the regular season (56.7 percent from midrange and 58.6 percent on non-restricted area paint attempts per WNBA.com).
That aspect of her game may force Vegas to switch up some coverages. Switching more could eliminate some of those clean catch-and-shoot windows she saw on Tuesday and tilt the series even more towards post play, something we hinted at in our series preview.
Previewing the 2019 WNBA Playoffs best-of-five semifinals series between the Las Vegas Aces and top-seeded Washington Mystics.
Laimbeer’s Royal Flush
Maybe coming off the bench is still the best move for Kelsey Plum. But she’s a functional starter at this point, and the Aces are unlikely to get enough offensively elsewhere to win games when she isn’t getting big minutes.
Kelsey Plum showed moxie in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals series that opened in Washington Tuesday night. Plum led Aces reserves with 16 points in loss.
Nearly five minutes to start a game without Plum and even longer without Dearica Hamby is too much time. Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer needs more of his five best players on the floor both in total and all at once.
There’s no doubting who they are at this moment in time: Plum, Kayla McBride, Hamby, Wilson and Cambage.
That group was plus-22 in 15.6 minutes on Sunday against Chicago per WNBA.com and plus-four in just 8.4 minutes in Game 1.
Plum ended up playing 30 minutes. Hamby played 25. The Aces were down six by the time Plum entered the game at the 5:43 mark and trailing by eight when Hamby first checked in two full minutes later. Similar story in the third: Plum entered the game after less than two minutes but Hamby sat for about five minutes as the Aces were outscored 11-7.
A long stretch to start a game without their best players on the floor undoubtedly hurts their offense, and it’s tough to see any areas in which they’re better off continuing to trust any alternatives.
Cambage (28 minutes) also sat for a long stretch in the second half—the final 5:06 of the third. Laimbeer addressed that stretch during the opening remarks of his postgame presser.
“I hope we learned, especially hope Liz learned,” he said. “Liz didn’t come out in the third quarter with the energy and the fire. We gave her the ball a couple times. She didn’t finish, couple turnovers. She knows what happened. She knows she has to play better in all parts of the game every minute she’s out there. When she finally got engaged in the fourth quarter, it was like, ‘Feed her, feed her, feed her.'”
Can’t stop the feeling
All signs just appear to point in Washington’s favor after the Aces came so close.
(Not to dodge the final possession amid all of this: It was clear just from listening to the broadcast that Laimbeer was indeed hollering for a timeout and an official was standing right next to him as Cambage secured that final defensive rebound, and Plum definitely initiated the contact with Delle Donne by jumping sideways.)
Will all of these factors—Washington starting the game 5-of-19 from deep as Vegas made half of their treys, the Aces shooting north of 60 percent in a half, successfully forcing Delle Donne into a lot of tough shots, getting to the foul line 12 more times, Toliver playing limited minutes, zero fastbreak points for the Mystics—pan out in the same direction all at once at any other point in this series even if it goes to five games?
There’s no question that the Aces can flex their muscle even more inside in the form of buckets from Wilson, Cambage and Hamby and even more on the offensive glass. With that and fewer turnovers, the Aces can continue to push the Mystics in Game 2.
If not, they’ll have their backs against the wall hoping to avoid a sweep over the weekend.
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