How does Washington maintain its edge?
WASHINGTON — Game 1 of the WNBA semifinal series between the Las Vegas Aces and the Washington Mystics did not disappoint. On Tuesday, the teams combined for 107 points in the first half alone, and there were 16 lead changes and 10 ties. Led by Emma Meesseman’s 27 points and 10 rebounds, Washington ultimately secured a 2-point win and 1-0 series edge. Including Meesseman, five players on both teams scored at least 19 points, and Kristi Toliver returned for the Mystics after missing the last five weeks with a knee injury.
With Game 2 on tap Thursday at 8:30pm ET, here are three questions for the Mystics as they look to take a 2-0 series lead before flying to Las Vegas for Game 3.
Can the Mystics hang with the Aces on the glass?
Las Vegas outrebounded Washington 42-30 in Game 1, but Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer was upset with his team’s rebounding in the postgame press conference. “We didn’t do a good job of rebounding,” he said. “… [We] gave them too many offensive rebounds.” Four Aces players had at least seven rebounds, led by Liz Cambage’s 12, but that was evidently not good enough for the league’s best rebounding team.
Trying to match a better rebounding effort from the Aces should concern Washington’s Mike Thibault, whose team was outrebounded defensively 30-20 and grabbed only 45% of all available rebounds. Forwards Meesseman, Elena Delle Donne, and Latoya Sanders combined for 21 of Washington’s 30 rebounds, but Washington will need to get more from its guards. Aerial Powers (2 rebounds), Ariel Atkins (2), Natasha Cloud (0), and Toliver (1) all grabbed fewer than their individual averages, and together, they had fewer rebounds than Aces guard Kelsey Plum (7). More minutes for Powers could help here: the 5’9 guard averaged 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in her last four regular season games while playing nearly 20 minutes per game, but she played less than 10 minutes on Tuesday. Giving her more minutes would also help boost Washington’s bench, which has been a strength for them all season but was held to just 16 points on Tuesday.
How will the Mystics defend in transition?
Las Vegas took a 57-50 lead into the locker room at halftime, and after the game, Thibault called Washington’s first-half defense “probably one of our worst defensive halves of the year.” The Mystics finished the game with an abysmal 118.8 defensive rating, surrendering over 20 points per 100 possessions more than they did in the regular season.
The Mystics admitted that there were some nerves and a bit of rust, as they were coming off of a nine-day break from games, but they also struggled with the Aces’ transition offense. Although the Aces were only credited with seven fast-break points, they frequently forced the Mystics to scramble on defense by pushing the ball. Look no further than the final shot of the game: Cambage rebounded a miss by Delle Donne, the Aces pushed the ball up the court, and Plum missed a jumper in transition. Delle Donne said, “I was just trying to get back … [Plum] makes open shots and I didn’t see anyone in front of her. So I wanted to … at least have her see a body.” It’s debatable whether Delle Donne fouled Plum as she got back on defense—and it’s clear that the refs failed to grant Laimbeer a timeout despite multiple requests—but controversy aside, Plum’s shot was a microcosm of the 39:57 that preceded it.
After the game, when asked about her team’s defense, Delle Donne said, “We really struggled in the first half. I felt like [the Aces] were just able to get whatever they wanted. They were running in transition; we weren’t getting back.” Thibault and Meesseman both pointed out that many players were guarding different players than they were being guarded by on offense, so once the Mystics shot the ball, it was sometimes difficult to find the player they would need to guard and to know whether to get back or try for the offensive rebound. This cross-matching will likely happen again in Game 2, and the Mystics will need to be better prepared for that than they were in Game 1. Much has been written about the Mystics’ record-setting offense, but a 118.8 defensive rating is simply not good enough to win a five-game series.
Who will have to adjust to whom?
This series features two head coaches with a combined five WNBA Coach of the Year awards in their careers and all three WNBA Coach of the Month awards in 2019. It also features a contrast in styles, with Washington averaging over 25 3-point attempts per game and the Aces relying heavily on forwards Cambage and A’ja Wilson. Before the game, Thibault said that there was “no reason” to change his game plan from the regular season, when Washington won two out of three games. But, he said, “I think what we’ll see is, have they made an adjustment and do we need to adjust to that? … Neither coach wants to get caught in a situation where you’re playing for very long in a matchup you don’t like.”
For his part, Laimbeer seemed content to see what Washington would do and confident that his team could handle any lineup the Mystics put on the floor. The Aces’ three-forward lineup of Plum, Kayla McBride, Dearica Hamby, Wilson, and Cambage outscored Chicago by 22 points in 15 minutes on Sunday, but before Tuesday’s game, Laimbeer did not commit to giving that group heavy minutes. He explained, “I don’t know how [Washington is] going to play. Depends on how they play.” Washington ended up starting three forwards, and the Aces’ three-forward lineup played the most minutes of any Aces quintet and was +4 in 8.4 minutes.
A few times in Tuesday’s game, fans could plainly see the adjustments being made as one coach would sub a player in, and right away, before the game could resume, the other coach would respond in kind. After the game, Laimbeer said, “It was clear that we needed to match their size … [If] they put a small lineup there, we’ll put one out there. They put a big one, we’ll put a big one up.” Laimbeer did add that the Mystics sometimes had to respond to his substitutions, too, but it’s worth watching in Game 2 whether Laimbeer develops a stronger preference for certain lineups and tries to force Washington to match those lineups more often.
All statistics courtesy of WNBA.com and the game box score.
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