The Washington Mystics are one win away from their first WNBA title in franchise history after taking Game 3 in Connecticut 94-81 on Sunday afternoon. The WNBA championship trophy will be in the house on Tuesday as the Mystics go for the win and the Sun look to stay alive and force a winner-take-all Game 5 back in DC.
Here are five key takeaways from Washington’s Game 3 win.
1. Delle Donne Guts It Out For Washington
Elena Delle Donne played just 3 minutes and 28 seconds in Washington’s Game 2 loss as she left the court with back spasms and wasn’t able to return. An MRI revealed a small disc herniation and her status remained questionable over the four-day gap between Games 2 and 3 as Mystics doctors and therapists worked around the clock to try to get the MVP back on the court.
Shortly before tip it was announced that Delle Donne (and Ariel Atkins, who was also questionable with back spasms) would play and start for the Mystics. With the ‘will she or won’t she play’ question answered, more questions immediately followed – what would she be able to do and how long would she be able to stay on the court?
Delle Donne played through pain and limited mobility to give the Mystics everything she could on Sunday. She finished with 13 points and six rebounds in 26 minutes, but her numbers don’t come close to measuring her impact on the game. Her presence on the floor mattered for both teams – for Washington it gave them a boost knowing that their leader was willing to put everything on the line for her teammates, for Connecticut it meant they wouldn’t get a repeat of the final 36 minutes of Game 2 with the league MVP off the court.
“Yeah, it’s everything. Her presence alone, whether she’s 100 percent or 10 percent, just instills confidence in the rest of the group,” said Kristi Toliver following the game. “And she showed a lot of character and showed a lot of heart just being out on the floor today because she’s obviously not feeling great.”
Tough as nails! 💪
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 6, 2019
Her first shot attempt came in the game’s second minute as she was open for a 3-pointer on the right wing that splashed through like so many for EDD all season long. While her running gate and her lateral movement were clearly compromised by her back injury, the shooting stroke looked just fine with that long distance attempt.
Delle Donne remained on the perimeter for much of the game – her first four shots were all 3-pointers, which she made her first three, before missing her first shot with 7:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. It ended up being her only miss as she made her final two buckets, which were both two-point shots that helped seal the win for Washington. The first was a 14-foot jumper in the lane after an offensive rebound and the second was a driving layup off a pump fake from beyond the 3-point arc after the Sun had cut the Mystics lead to 10.
“It was kind of one of the moments like, ‘Hey, I might give my back up and my body up on this one,’ but I feel like it was such a big moment to stop that run they’re making,” Delle Donne said after the game. “And I knew I’ve got a phenomenal team. They’ve carried me this whole series, and they’re going to carry me the rest of the way. So just saw I might have a lane because I hadn’t drived – or done anything really other than space – so just tried to attack.”
Delle Donne played in five-to-seven minutes bursts throughout the game and received treatment from a physical therapist in the back while she was off the court in order to stay warm and prevent her back from getting tight. The formula worked well in Game 3 as she clearly gave the Mystics a lift.
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 6, 2019
Of course, now its time for another round of questions to come. The Mystics had the luxury of four days between Games 2 and 3, but will not have so much time before Game 4, which tips off Tuesday at 8:00 PM/ET. Will that be enough time for the Mystics training staff to work their magic on Delle Donne’s back again? How will her body respond after playing 26 minutes tonight? Will she be able to give it a go with the Mystics on the precipice of a championship? And if so, can she be as effective as she was on Sunday?
2. Washington Shoots The Lights Out
Throughout the regular season, the Connecticut Sun led the WNBA in defensive 3-point percentage as they held their opponents to just 30.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc over 34 games. They were even better at home, holding their opponents to a league-best 26.9 percent from three in 17 home games. They were even better during the playoffs, holding the Sparks to 24.3 percent shooting from three during their two home playoff games in the Semifinals.
But the Sun had no answers for the barrage of 3-pointers that the Mystics unleashed on Sunday. Washington tied a WNBA Finals record with 16 3-pointers made and did so on 27 attempts for an accuracy of 59.3 percent. The Mystics could not have picked a better time to have their best 3-point shooting performance of the season as their 59.3 percent was their top mark between the regular season and playoffs.
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 6, 2019
Through three quarters, the Mystics had made 12 of 20 from beyond the arc. That 12 3-pointers made mark is an important delineation for Washington – they are unbeaten in 12 games this year when they have made at least 12 3-pointers in a game. The Mystics went 18-0 during the regular season and 4-1 in the playoffs when they made at least 10 3-pointers.
Throughout the game, the Sun left Natasha Cloud to double team other players and Cloud made them pay by knocking down a career-high five 3-pointers in 10 attempts for the Mystics. Then you add the trio of Elena Delle Donne (3-4), Emma Meesseman (3-4) and Kristi Toliver (4-4) that combined for 10 treys on 12 attempts and you get a historic shooting performance for Washington.
A look at Washington’s shot chart shows that 11 of their 16 3-pointers were made from the left wing, including three straight to open the fourth quarter by Meesseman that helped the Mystics push their lead back to 17 points and essentially lock up the win and the 2-1 series lead.
3. Toliver Bounces Back
You won’t find a tougher critic of Kristi Toliver than Kristi Toliver. The Mystics guard – and the only player in the series to have won a WNBA championship – knew her performance in Game 2 was subpar, especially with the absence of Delle Donne, and that she would have to be much better in Game 3 for the Mystics.
After scoring just 13 points on 6-20 shooting from the field and 1-6 from 3-point range in Game 2, Toliver had her shot going in Game 3 as she finished with 20 points on 7-9 shooting from the field and a perfect 4-4 from beyond the arc. She also dished out 10 assists, to become just the seventh player in WNBA Playoffs history (and third in the WNBA Finals) to post a 20-point, 10-assist game.
Toliver was sidelined for nearly six weeks with a deep bone bruised and strained MCL in her right knee during the second half of the season. While the Mystics closed the regular season strong without her, they knew they would need Toliver in order to fulfill their goal of winning a WNBA championship.
Heading into Game 3, Toliver had averaged 13.8 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 39.5 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three during the playoffs. She picked a perfect time to have her best game of the postseason.
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 6, 2019
4. Washington Wins The Battle Of The Boards
The two biggest stories to come out of Game 2 of the Finals were Delle Donne’s injury and Jonquel Jones’ historic performance as the All-WNBA Second Team center posted the first 30-point, 15-rebound game in WNBA Finals history. She finished with 32 points and 18 rebounds, including a Finals record nine offensive boards as she led the Sun to a 99-87 win to even the series.
The Sun dominated the Mystics on the glass and used their advantage in offensive rebounds to attempt 12 more shots than Washington. Jones finished with more offensive rebounds herself than the entire Mystics team as Connecticut’s 17-point advantage in second chance points helped them earn a 12-point victory.
Jones simply overpowered the Mystics in Game 2 – especially after the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne left the game – winning the battle for rebound position as she feasted on the boards all night long. Mystics coach Mike Thibault had four days to harp on rebounding with his team and the importance of not only boxing out but having perimeter players help the bigs and gang rebound in order to negate the advantage that Connecticut had in Game 2.
“A problem not addressed is like a boomerang; it’s just going to keep coming back,” said Toliver after the game. “So, we had to address the problem. And the problem was defensive rebounding. And so we took pride in the fact that we were willing to do whatever it took. We were finding bodies. We were pursuing the basketball. We were gang rebounding. A.P. [Aerial Powers] was flying all over the place. Tash did her defensive thing; she’s one of the best defensive players in the league. So, yeah, it was going to take a collective effort. But we knew after Game 2 that was the sole reason why we lost.”
Washington finished Game 3 with a 34-27 advantage in total rebounds and the teams each finished with seven offensive rebounds – Jones had more than that by herself in Game 2. By limiting Jones and the Sun on the boards, the Mystics finished with a 13-9 advantage in second chance points after being punished by Connecticut’s extra opportunities in Game 2.
5. Mystics Bench Making The Difference
Last season, the Mystics made their first WNBA Finals appearance, but were swept by the Seattle Storm. In that series, not only was Elena Delle Donne limited due to a knee injury suffered in the Semifinals, but there was another player missing from the lineup completely. Emma Meesseman missed the entire 2018 season in order to fulfill her commitments with the Belgian National Team.
Meesseman returned to the Mystics for 2019, although she did miss 11 games during the regular season to play with Belgium again. Because she was going to miss so much time during the regular season, Mystics coach Mike Thibault elected to bring her off the bench rather than disrupt his starting lineups to accommodate her departure and return.
That move bolstered an already solid bench for the Mystics that continues to be a difference maker in these Finals. In Game 3, Meesseman finished with a game-high 21 points in 25 minutes off the bench as she helped the Mystics reserves outscore the Sun reserves 36-21 on the night.
.@EmmaMeesseman proved to be a difficult matchup today for the defense! 👏
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 6, 2019
“Emma was a monster,” Delle Donne said following the game. “She was on the attack. So confident. Emma is such a good player, and we need her to just continue to attack because no one can guard her one-on-one. She requires double teams, triple teams to be guarded. So Emma’s going to continue to be huge for us. She’s been huge this entire playoffs. I say it all the time, Emma is one of the greatest in the world. Her play overseas, what she does for her national team, she’s ready for this moment. And you can tell she’s relishing in this moment.”
This season, Delle Donne became the first WNBA player to join the vaunted 50-40-90 club – an elite collection of the game’s greatest shooters. Had Meesseman played more games, she likely would have joined the club as well as she shot 55.2 percent from the field, 42.2 percent from three and 90.5 percent from the free throw line this season.
Along with Meesseman’s monster game, the Mystics also got strong bench contributions from Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (7 points, 2 rebounds in 15 minutes), Tianna Hawkins (4 points, 2 rebounds in 10 minutes) and Aerial Powers (4 points, 8 rebounds and a game-high plus-23 in 23 minutes).
The Mystics have relied on their bench all season long – they averaged a league-best 30.5 points on 47.6 percent shooting during the regular season – and have continued to do so in the playoffs. Many teams shorten their rotations and rely more heavily on their starters during the postseason. The Mystics have continued to utilize their bench as a difference maker in the postseason. Through seven playoff games, the Mystics bench is averaging 29.3 points on 52.7 percent shooting. And through the first three games of the Finals, those numbers have climbed to 34.7 points and 56.3 percent shooting. Washington’s bench has outscored Connecticut’s bench 104-38 in this series.