Last year’s hot hand in the playoffs hasn’t had the same touch
WASHINGTON — As a rookie last season, guard Ariel Atkins was a big reason why the Washington Mystics made the WNBA Finals, averaging 15.2 points per game on 48% shooting in nine playoff games. She had been solid in the regular season, too, starting 24 of 34 games and averaging over 11 points per game, but she kicked things up a notch in the postseason. “To me, they don’t make the finals last year without her,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said recently.
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However, it’s been a different story for Atkins in the 2019 playoffs. She is playing nearly five fewer minutes per game (19.8) than she did in the regular season (24.4), in part because Washington’s three-forward lineup has been so effective. Atkins has struggled to score in the minutes she has gotten, averaging just 4.5 points per game on 23% shooting from the field. In four games, she has made only two 3-pointers and three 2-pointers (plus all six of her free throw attempts). She has also committed nearly as many turnovers (7) as she did in the 2018 playoffs (8) in less than half as many games. To put it simply, she has struggled on offense, but Washington is deeper than it was a season ago and has been able to overcome Atkins’s slump.
Defense has always been a calling card for Atkins, who made the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team in both 2018 and 2019, but the data suggests that her defense has slumped in the playoffs, too. In the regular season, the Mystics were 15.3 points per 100 possessions better with Atkins on the court, which was second on the team to WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and came mostly on the strength of her defense. In the playoffs, that positive net rating has evaporated; the Mystics are essentially equally strong with her on and off the court, and their defense has actually been better with her on the bench. Of course, four games is a small sample size, and it is more difficult both to score and to defend in the playoffs. However, in 2018, Atkins’s net ratings in the regular season and playoffs were 21.9 and 15.7, respectively, so the increased level of play in the postseason is probably not entirely to blame for her net-zero rating this postseason.
In the WNBA Finals, against an extremely talented Connecticut Sun team that swept Los Angeles in the semifinals, it would surely help to get a bigger contribution from Atkins on both ends of the court. After her team’s final practice before Game 1, Atkins said that the shots she has gotten in the playoffs so far have been open, but just aren’t going in. Mystics head coach Mike Thibault attributed part of Atkins’s struggles to a few nagging injuries, even though she has sat out only one game this season (in July due to Achilles soreness). Thibault also pointed to the normal growing pains for a second-year player who found success as a rookie. “Teams are paying more attention to her this year,” he said. “… She’s had to learn to adjust to that, too. Hopefully this will be a good series for her.”
One stat that is looking up for Atkins is her assists, which have jumped to 3.5 per game in the playoffs compared to 2.0 in the regular season and 1.9 in last year’s playoffs. “I think we’ve just had more balance,” Atkins said. “… People are probably running out on me or trying to figure out how to switch onto Elena or Emma [Meesseman, who is averaging 21.3 points per game in the playoffs]. And it kind of opens things up.” She added that she has been working with Mystics associate head coach Eric Thibault on “keeping my eyes up [and] really seeing the basket.” Those efforts clearly paid off in the semifinals: Atkins assisted on 20.6% of her teammates’ baskets while on the court, nearly double her rate in the regular season (11.7%) and last year’s playoffs (10.8%).
Against the Sun, Atkins’s passing game could be one way she looks to reestablish her offensive rhythm. Mike Thibault said the team would “not [do] anything different” to try to get Atkins going, just “do the normal things” and hope she makes her open shots in however many minutes she plays. “Every series has a different character to it,” he said about the team’s lineup options. “So we’ll see.”
Despite her recent struggles, Atkins was optimistic heading into Game 1. “It’s exciting” to be in the WNBA Finals, she said. “… I think we’ve kind of got a feeling of exactly who we are right now, and that’s fun to feel.” She did not shy away from discussing her performance, but made clear that she has a bigger goal in mind than equaling her numbers from last year. “It’s important and it’d be good to knock those shots down,” she explained, “but at the end of the day, whatever works to get us these wins, that’s the only thing that really matters to me.”
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and WNBA.com/stats.
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