The WNBA Semifinals series between the Washington Mystics and Las Vegas Aces opened with a banger on Tuesday night. Washington squeaked out a 97-95 win over Vegas in a thriller. We learned a lot about these teams from Game 1 and should see ripple effects from it throughout the rest of the series. I highlighted four plays from Game 1 that teach something important about this match up.
Kristi Toliver’s Stepback Three at the end of the 3rd quarter
Kristi Toliver returned to the court in Game 1 after missing over a month with a bone bruise in her right knee. The All-Star shooting guard looked rusty early in the game as she went 0-7 from the field in the first half. But Coach Mike Thibault knew that Toliver would find her stroke eventually, as he said in the post-game press conference. He trusted her and let her play about 23 minutes in this game despite struggling early on.
Well, Coach T’s trust in her was rewarded on the last possession of the 3rd quarter. Just look at this filth from Toliver.
.@KristiToliver steps back along the wing for 3! 😮
📺: ESPN2 #WNBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/jr3uV8Qm9a
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 18, 2019
Toliver already had a wide open shot when Emma Meesseman grabbed the rebound over A’ja Wilson. Kelsey Plum, for some reason, left Toliver alone to try and get a rebound among the trees. With Plum out of position, Toliver could have rushed the shot and probably still buried it. But she takes a beat to gather herself as Plum scrambles to contest. Then, Toliver pump faked into the tiniest of stepbacks to create jusssst enough time and space for the shot.
Her little stepback is one of my favorite moves in basketball. Toliver needs so little space that the stepback doesn’t need to be long. It just needs to be quick and get Toliver in rhythm. Even though the contest was better because Toliver waited, the shot was easier for her because it was in rhythm. For me, she has the best stepback in the WNBA and this is just another example of it.
Including this shot, Toliver went 3 for 4 from the field and hit some huge shots down the stretch. She finished with 8 points and 4 assists This play was a huge turning point in the game. It gave the Mystics a lead and momentum heading into the fourth. Washington rode that momentum for a 16-6 run to start the fourth quarter that put them in the driver’s seat to win. But, it also signaled that Kristi Toliver can impact this series in a big way.
Elena Delle Donne’s game-sealing fadeaway
You can’t talk about most important plays without bringing up the game-winning bucket right? Well, you can (and I will at some point in the future). But EDD’s turnaround fadeaway over Dearica Hamby is too nice to gloss over.
The play is a simple isolation for Delle Donne, but the Mystics did the little things right to make it work. Natasha Cloud and Latoya Sanders had to clear out in a hurry with just eight seconds left on the shot clock. They hustled to their spots and gave Delle all the space she needed to work.
EDD drove baseline on Hamby, who actually is in position to stop the drive. However, Liz Cambage comes over to double team EDD. Liz gets sucked in the baseline drives and sets up under the basket. If Hamby knew the double was coming, she should have stayed higher on EDD’s back. Now the Aces have two defenders guarding the same player in the same way by stopping Delle’s drive to the baseline. Obviously, we have hindsight and tape to watch but that’s not what you want.
Then, Elena Delle Donne puts her foot in the ground, turns, and hits the jumper. Hamby contested decently, but that don’t cut it against EDD. The shot gave DC a four-point lead with 32.6 seconds left, a lead which they did not squander. It was the type of shot that you would expect from the newly minted MVP. If the Mystics win the title, this shot may be end up in the championship highlight reel.
Kelsey Plum’s running layup late in the 4th
While Delle Donne’s shot proved to be the game winner, the Aces answered right back to put the game in doubt.
Bill Laimbeer drew up a really simple but effective ATO (after-timeout action). Kelsey Plum curls up from the corner, gets the inbounds, and gets a great pick from A’ja Wilson. Plum’s defender, Kristi Toliver, is screened out of the play. Elena Delle Donne now has to stop Plum’s dash to the rim. But EDD stayed tight with A’ja, who killed DC with 23 points, and can’t get in front Plum. Latoya Sanders probably could have contested at the rim. But it would have set off a chain reaction that ends with an open layup for Liz or an open three for Dearica Hamby. Neither are great options.
Despite the play’s eventual irrelevance, the Aces should continue getting Kelsey Plum coming off screens with some momentum. She put up a monster stat line of 16 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds in 30 minutes of play. Plum did a lot of that damage using screens from Wilson and Cambage. She blew by defenders for layups like this one, pulled up for open jumpers or threes, and found the rolling bigs. Laimbeer needs to keep playing Plum at the end of games and getting her downhill into picks, where she is deadly.
Jackie Young’s errant entry pass
Jackie Young had very rough night. She finished with 4 points on 1 of 6 shooting in just 17 minutes of play. Even though she also got 5 assists, she mucked up a couple of plays like this one. Here, she gets a little impatient. Young needs to wait for Wilson to pop out more to take her defender away from Cambage. Even if Young makes a good pass, Liz would have to fight through a double or triple team to get a layup. She needs to take a beat and find the best option in the offense
The more concerning thing for Vegas is how the Mystics can sag off Jackie. Ariel Atkins is three feet off and it is prevent Liz from getting in better position for the pass. Atkins can help guard the post-up because Jackie is not a scoring threat. Young simply needs to score more to be effective in this series.
It’s not just the rookie who needs to score. The Aces need one of their role players to step up as a scorer. They had enough fire power with their big 5 (Plum, McBride, Hamby, Wilson, and Cambage) to win on Tuesday. But they lacked the big performance from the rest of the team to win. Laimbeer played his entire roster in an effort to figure out what would work. If he can’t figure it out, the Aces’ playoff run will end in the Semifinals.