A breakout game for the second-year star
WASHINGTON — During the WNBA semifinals, Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault told the media, “Every game, Ariel Atkins has one minute where she looks like she’s exhausted, you give her a break, and then she comes back and she’s fine.”
That happens because Atkins only knows one style of play: all-out, wire to wire. Game 1 of the WNBA Finals was a textbook example of that: sixteen seconds in, Atkins swished a 3-pointer, and with under 20 seconds remaining, she grabbed an offensive rebound to help seal the Mystics’ 95-86 victory over the Connecticut Sun.
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Atkins’s shooting was a welcome sight for the Mystics after she struggled throughout the semifinals, scoring just 18 points in 4 games while shooting 24% from the field. Ahead of Game 1, Thibault said the team would “not [do] anything different” to try to get Atkins going, but there was a clear difference in Atkins’s results. Atkins finished Game 1 with 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including three 3-pointers. “She was hitting everything for us today,” forward Emma Meesseman said.
Atkins’s 21 points reminded many observers, including her coach, of her breakout performance in last year’s playoffs, when she averaged 15.2 points on 48% shooting. “That looked like the Ariel from last year in the playoffs,” Thibault said postgame, “and that offensive rebound she got late in the game was a huge saver for us. It gave us the last piece of momentum that we needed.” The Mystics led for most of the game and by as much as 17 points, but the Sun twice cut the lead to four points in the fourth quarter. In addition to the game-sealing rebound, Atkins had five points and secured a pivotal jump ball during the Mystics’ final push.
The late rebound was one of five that Atkins grabbed in Game 1, which is one more than she had during the entire 2019 semifinals. She attributed the difference to simply “a matter of opportunity”: against Las Vegas, Washington’s guards had to prioritize transition defense over offensive rebounding, whereas against Connecticut, the game plan called for the guards to look for more second-chance opportunities. “[Rebounding is] what I like to do, so I tried to do it,” Atkins explained. Meesseman gave her teammate more credit: “[Connecticut] kept coming back and she was the one single-handedly shutting them down by taking those rebounds.”
Atkins further stuffed the stat sheet with 3 steals and 1 assist, and the Mystics outscored the Sun by 15 points in her nearly 24 minutes on the court. “The game of basketball isn’t just scoring; it isn’t just knocking down shots,” point guard Natasha Cloud said afterward. “[Atkins] affects every part of the game.” Guard Kristi Toliver called Atkins “the best second-year player I’ve been around as far as her maturity, her work ethic, her want to do the right thing for her team.”
On Sunday, Atkins said that she bounced back from a rough semifinal series by staying even-keeled and focused. “I just think … not making a big deal out of stuff like that. Sometimes [my shot] falls, sometimes it doesn’t.” Her teammates were also extremely supportive. Cloud revealed postgame that she had taken Atkins aside after the semifinals and told her, “Ten out of ten times I’m going to pass you the ball. Ten out of ten times I want you to shoot the ball. I trust you to shoot the ball. Your shot’s going to go in.”
And Atkins herself said after Game 1, “We’ve just got good people on this squad. They continue to push your confidence in yourself. It is really hard to get down being on a team like this.”
As the Mystics look ahead to Game 2, Atkins expects her experience in last year’s playoffs and in this year’s semifinals to help her perform in big moments because it showed her what to expect and how to respond. That is especially important for the Mystics because, beyond her contributions on the stat sheet, Atkins has been one of the Mystics’ sparks ever since she arrived in DC.
As she explained after Game 1, “Connecticut is a high-energy team. Everybody knows that. So being able to match that is really important.” On Sunday, Atkins set the tone with the early 3-pointer, and her eight first-quarter points helped the Mystics to a 13-point lead. Strong starts were also part of the reason the Mystics advanced to the Finals—they led Las Vegas after the first quarter in three of the four games—and they will surely look to set the tone again in Game 2.
However the Mystics perform in Game 2, though, Atkins has already led the Mystics to one more WNBA Finals win than they had last season, when they were swept 3-0 by Seattle. According to Toliver, Atkins’s performance this season and in the playoffs is “showing that sophomore slumps are BS. And I’m just really, really proud of her and all the plays that she’s made, and tonight her rebounding and her playmaking was the difference for us.” Meesseman is similarly glad to have a teammate like Atkins.
“She’s a great person. … I’ve seen amazing things from her, so I’m looking forward to [sharing] more time on the court with her.”
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and game box scores.
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