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WNBA Playoffs 2018 Semifinal Preview: (2) Atlanta Dream vs. (3) Washington Mystics

For the first time since the new playoff format was introduced in 2016, we are guaranteed to have an Eastern Conference team represented in the WNBA Finals. While the new format eliminated the traditional East vs. West matchup, that is exactly what has played out based on the results of the first two rounds of the playoffs.

In the West it will be No. 1 Seattle vs. No. 5 Phoenix and in the East it will be No. 2 Atlanta vs. No. 3 Washington, with the first game of the series tipping off Sunday in Atlanta at 3:00 PM ET on ESPN2.

Series Schedule

– Game 1: Sunday, Aug. 26, Washington at Atlanta, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
– Game 2: Tuesday, Aug. 28, Washington at Atlanta, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
– Game 3: Friday, Aug. 31, Atlanta at Washington, 8 p.m. ET (ESPNews/NBA TV)
– Game 4*: Sunday, Sept. 2, Atlanta at Washington, Time TBD (ESPN2)
– Game 5*: Tuesday, Sept. 4: Washington at Atlanta, Time TBD (ESPN2)
*if necessary

The Dream vs. Mystics semifinal features two of the hottest teams down the stretch of the regular season. Atlanta was the best team in the WNBA over the second half of the season as they went 15-2 over their final 17 games, including a franchise-record eight-game winning streak. However, that streak was snapped by Washington as the Mystics closed out the regular season by winning eight of their last nine games; and if you include their second-round blowout win over L.A., the Mystics enter the semifinals having just one loss in their last 10 games.

These two teams are also the only two in the Final Four that have yet to win a WNBA title. Seattle has two (2004, 2010) and Phoenix has three (2007, 2009, 2014); meanwhile Atlanta has three Finals appearances but has yet to win a Finals game, and Washington is the only active franchise in the WNBA that has never appeared in the Finals. In terms of playoff history between the teams, the Dream eliminated the Mystics in the first round on their way to the Finals in both 2010 and 2013 as the Dream lead the all-time playoff series 4-1.

Season Series (Atlanta 2, Washington 1)

The Dream also won this year’s regular season series by taking two of three games against the Mystics. All three meetings took place during a three-week stretch during July. And all three featured All-Star Angel McCoughtry before she suffered a season-ending knee injury in early August.

McCoughtry was not only Atlanta’s second-leading scorer (16.5 ppg) and rebounder (6.0), she is also one of the best playoff scorers in the history of the WNBA as she owns the second-highest scoring average (22.8) in playoff history behind only Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper. McCoughtry also owns four of the top seven scoring games in playoff history (including the single-game record of 42 points) and three of the top four scoring performances in the WNBA Finals.

The Dream closed out the season by winning their final three games without McCoughtry to hold onto the No. 2 seed and earn the double-bye to the semifinals. Now they must look to advance without the veteran scorer available against a high-scoring Mystics squad. In their win over Los Angeles in the second round, the Mystics had six players score in double-figures – the entire starting lineup plus Tianna Hawkins off the bench – as Washington set franchise records for points (96), assists (28) and margin of victory (32) in a playoff game. It was the second-largest margin of victory in WNBA playoff history, trailing only the 33-point win by Phoenix over Tulsa in 2015.

July 11 at Washington
Dream 106, Mystics 89

Other than the three-game win streak in early June, the Dream could not string wins together through the first half of the season. That all changed on July 8 when Atlanta won the first of eight straight games. The second win of that streak came against the Mystics in Washington DC. Atlanta got big contributions from those who were not with the Dream in 2017 – McCoughtry had 24 points (she sat out the 2017 season), Jessica Breland had 23 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists (she signed as a free agent from Chicago in the offseason), and Renee Montgomery had 21 points (she also signed as a free agent from Minnesota). Tiffany Hayes added 21 points as the Dream scored 106 points, their second-highest scoring game of the season. Natasha Cloud led the Mystics with 17 points, while Elena Delle Donne added 16 points and nine rebounds.

July 15 at Atlanta
Dream 80, Mystics 77

The Dream’s winning ways (four in a row and counting) continued as the teams met in Atlanta four days later as they earned a three-point win over the Mystics after trailing 16-2 in the opening quarter. Brittney Sykes led five Dream players in double figures as she scored 12 of her 17 points in the fourth quarter to help seal the victory. Elena Delle Donne had 23 points and 11 rebounds, while LaToya Sanders added 16 points for Washington.

July 31 at Atlanta
Mystics 86, Dream 71

Atlanta’s winning streak had stretched to a franchise-record eight games when they met the Mystics for the third and final time of the regular season. Washington snapped Atlanta’s win streak behind a 28-point, 16-rebound performance from Elena Delle Donne. The Mystics also got 13 points from LaToya Sanders, 11 from Natasha Cloud and 10 from Aerial Powers off the bench in just her second game with the team after coming over in a trade with Dallas. The Dream were led Tiffany Hayes’ 18 points, but the team shot just 3-22 (13.6%) from beyond at the arc and 35.6% overall in the loss.

Stats Spotlight

Efficiency – Strength vs. Strength

The Mystics finished the regular season with the third-highest rated offense – scoring 107.2 points per 100 possessions – nearly four points higher than the league average. However, the Dream owned the top defense in the league, allowing just 97.1 points per 100 possessions. Which way will that 10-point swing sway during this playoff matchup?

Dream Defense

Atlanta’s offense is driven by its defense as they look to force turnovers or force difficult shots, grab the rebound and run. Atlanta led the league in blocks (5.3 per game), ranked third in steals (7.6 per game) and led all teams in points off turnovers (16.6 per game) during the regular season. While the Dream had their shooting woes (46.8% eFG%, 51.4% TS% – both ranked second to last) their ability to force turnovers and get out in transition has led to many easy baskets.

Mystics 3-Point Shooting

Is there a direct connection between 3-point shooting and team success? Three of the four teams in the semifinals – Seattle (9.0), Phoenix (8.5) and Washington (8.4) – rank 1-2-3 in 3-pointers made per game. Atlanta is the exception to the rule as they finished the regular season ranked ninth in 3-pointers made (5.8 per game). During the regular season series with Atlanta, Washington shot 25-70 (35.7%) from beyond the arc, which is right on par with their overall season average (35.8%, 5th in WNBA). The Mystics’ reliance on the 3-point shot counterbalances their lack of interior scoring as Washington ranked last in points in the paint (26.9 per game) during the regular season, while Atlanta ranked seventh at 32.6, which is on par with league average (32.7).

Matchups To Watch

Elena Delle Donne vs. Jessica Breland

Delle Donne and Breland spent three years as teammates in Chicago (2014-2016) before landing with their current teams. Delle Donne is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams every time she steps on the floor, but Breland knows her game well. Breland was a key free agent signing for the Dream this past offseason; she started all 34 games and averaged 8.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.1 steals during the regular season. She is one of just six players in the league to average at least one block and one steal per game.

Tiffany Hayes vs. Natasha Cloud/Ariel Atkins

Hayes led the Dream in scoring for the second straight season as she averaged a career-best 17.2 points per game (14th in the WNBA). The Eastern Conference Player of the Month for July went from being an All-Star snub to an MVP candidate that finished seventh in the final Race to MVP rankings. With McCoughtry sidelined, Hayes assumes a larger role in the Dream offense, which saw a dramatic improvement in the second half of the season. Meanwhile, both Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins spent time trying to slow down Hayes during the season series. Cloud is having a career year in her fourth WNBA season, averaging 8.6 points, 4.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. Atkins ranks fourth among rookies in scoring (11.3 points per game) and played so well during her rookie campaign that the Mystics were able to trade Tayler Hill to Dallas to acquire Aerial Powers, who has contributed off the bench.

Kristi Toliver vs. Renee Montgomery

These two point guards won championships in recent years – Toliver in 2016 with L.A. (defeating Montgomery’s Lynx) and Montgomery with the Lynx in 2017 (Toliver had already left L.A.) – before finding new homes in the Eastern Conference. Both players have brought veteran savvy, championship experience and plenty of 3-point shooting to their new teams; Montgomery finished second in the league in total 3-pointers made (78) while Toliver finished fourth (72).

Mike Thibault vs. Nicki Collen

It’s the veteran vs. the rookie when it comes to the matchup on the sidelines. Mike Thibault has coached 544 regular season games and 52 playoff games; he is the only coach in WNBA history with 300 regular season wins and picked up his 25th playoff win on Thursday. He led Connecticut to the Finals twice before coming to Washington in 2013. Meanwhile, Nicki Collen just completed her first WNBA season and Game 1 of this semfinal series will be her playoff coaching debut.