The story of the 2018 Washington Mystics is well-known and well-chronicled. The franchise finally got over the hump and reached the WNBA Finals. But Washington got swept handily once they got there. Well the 2019 Washington Mystics put to bed any idea of a sweep in Game 1. They pulled out a 95-86 victory over the Connecticut Sun to take a 1-0 lead in the Finals. Ariel Atkins reminded everyone of the team’s motivation after the game.
Holly Rowe: "How did your team definitively close this out?"
Ariel Atkins: "We lost to Seattle last year."
"Not having it?"
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) September 29, 2019
While the Mystics should be smiling and talking after getting this win, it was not as comfortable as they hoped. DC pulled away, but the Sun made it close throughout. Let’s talk about what happened and what it means going forward.
“Little A” comes up big
After struggling in the Vegas series, Ariel Atkins was due for a breakout playoff performance. And she got it. The second-year wing put up 21 points on 6 of 7 from the field, 3 of 4 from three, and 6 of 6 from the line. She added 5 rebounds, including a couple of crucial ones late, and a massive poke of the ball on Courtney Williams to essentially seal the game.
Atkins hit the first shot of the game and brought even energy throughout, as she has all season. She, essentially, took over Emma Meesseman’s role of the player left open on Washington and she filled it admirably. Coach Mike Thibault described her contributions as “huge.” To show how mature Atkins is, Elena Delle Donne told a story about how she noticed a crock pot and plants in the then-22 year-old’s house.
But Kristi Toliver really summed it up best in her post-game press conference when asked about Atkins:
“Little A is Little Freaking A.” On this night, she was also really freaking big.
The Other “A”
Alyssa Thomas, or “A.T.”, was a force of nature in this game. She finished the game with 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. AT missed just three of her 10 shots from the field and only one of her 7 free throws, which is no small feat for the 50% free throw shooter.
More importantly, she willed the Sun back into the game every time that Washington seemed to be pulling away. Thomas figured out a way to get a bucket to stifle DC’s momentum by attacking switches in the post or just bodying fools. She pulled down big boards and stop EDD or Emma Meesseman when the Sun needed it. Eventually, the Sun ran out of time and the flood gates broke but AT was not the problem.
At several points in my notes, I just wrote “Alyssa Thomas is not (expletive) playing around tonight” because of how focused and determined she was to keep Connecticut in it. Her will to win was just outstanding and will make a big difference against DC. I think she can keep this up because of how she can punish DC for switching and how she can push the ball up the court.
Courtney Williams called Thomas “the toughest player in the league right now.” Thomas made her look very smart in Game 1 with a gutsy performance.
Is any of this sustainable?
Both of the coaches seemed displeased, despite the entertaining game for fans. Coach T told reporters that he expected both coaches to “be mean to their team” in practice tomorrow while Curt Miller said that he and T “were pulling out their hair” as the teams shot over 60% in the first half.
I suspect that the coaches’ angst will be directed elsewhere after Game 2. Most obviously, the terrific shooting of both teams seems unlikely to continue. The Mystics shot 54% from the field, something that happened in a little less than 4% of WNBA regular season games this season. They also made 47.6% of their three point attempts, which is way above Washington’s averages in either the playoffs or the regular season.
The same idea applies to Connecticut shooting 48.5% from the field (they shot 42.3% in the regular season) and 39.1% from three (35.6% in the regular season). Washington had a very sloppy offensive game by their standards with 14 turnovers. Conversely, the Sun fouled much more than they normally do.
Overall, it seems like Game 2 will bring these teams down to earth a bit offensively. Theses coaches, two of the best in the game, will harp on defense and focus their adjustments on that end. But the offense will likely look much different as well. DC will commit to playing cleaner while Connecticut will look to run more. It’s a chess match and it will only get more complicated
“First game is kind of feeling it out and deciding how somebody is going to play you,” said Thibault. I imagine both coaches learned something in the feeling out process and this series will look very different in Game 2 because of it.
Washington threw the first punch, but we got a series
All season, the Mystics have talked about throwing the first punch. In Game 1, that saying took on a double meaning. The Mystics threw the first punch by winning the first game of the Finals, but also by winning the first quarter.
DC is the league’s best team in the opening frame as they lead the WNBA in average points and assists in the first quarter. Sunday was no different. The Mystics scored 30 points to open the game and shot an absurd 75% from the field. Washington got out to a 13-point lead and would not relinquish it.
“I thought the first quarter killed us, obviously. Take away that last foul, over the last three quarters we outplayed them and outscored them, but we dug ourselves in a hole, and we were always trying to climb out of it,” said Coach Miller.
While the Sun need to tighten up in the first quarter, the rest of the game was more revealing to me. Teams don’t typically get back into games when they play in DC. The first quarter blitz comes and the game is basically over. But the Sun never quit and never stopped coming at DC as they pulled within 4 points of Washington in the fourth quarter.
The Sun’s grit is not unexpected, but it was certainly impressive. It shows that this series will likely be the classic we all envisioned.