The Washington Mystics successfully defended their home court on Sunday as they defeated the Connecticut Sun 95-86 in Game 1 of the 2019 WNBA Finals presented by YouTube TV. It was the first WNBA Finals win for the Mystics franchise, as they were swept by the Seattle Storm last season in their first appearance in the championship series.
Here are five key takeaways from Washington’s Game 1 win.
1. MVP Doing MVP Things
Elena Delle Donne led the way for the Mystics with 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, becoming just the third player in league history to post a 20-10-5 game in the WNBA Finals (joining Deanna Nolan in 2007 and Lisa Leslie in 2001).
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 29, 2019
Delle Donne, who this season became the first WNBA player to join the 50-40-90 club, did her damage from inside the 3-point arc in this one as she hit an array of shots inside the paint and from mid-range often against the strong defense of Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (2nd Team All-Defense).
“[Delle Donne’s] obviously a go-to player down the stretch that they can play through and made some big plays,” said Sun coach Curt Miller. “But like Alyssa Thomas is an elite defender, and when she bodies up on 99 percent of the people in the league and they’ve picked up their dribble, she usually gets them stopped. But we all know that EDD’s step-through in that last movement to the basket where she leans in and can create space and get her shot off is the only person in the world that does that.”
Delle Donne opened the fourth quarter on the bench as the Mystics led by 10 points after three quarters. After the Sun cut the lead to six and had all the momentum on their side, Delle Donne returned to the court and each time the Sun cut the lead to four, Delle Donne answered with a jumper to push the Mystics lead back to six and keep the Sun at bay. Connecticut made a valiant effort at a comeback in the second half, but never got closer than four points as Delle Donne and Mystics were able to hold them off.
This was the first win in seven WNBA Finals games for Delle Donne as she was swept in 2014 by the Phoenix Mercury as a second-year player with the Chicago Sky and in 2018 by the Seattle Storm in a series where she was playing through the pain of a bone bruise in Washington’s first Finals appearance. Outside of wearing a face mask to protect a broken nose suffered earlier this season, Delle Donne is healthy at the right time of the year this time around.
“It feels great to know that I’m able to actually give everything I have,” she said after the game. “Last playoffs I gave everything I had, but that was about 70 percent. Just physically I wasn’t there.”
2. Atkins Rebounds Nicely
After a subpar outing in Washington’s Semifinal series against Las Vegas, sophomore Ariel Atkins played a huge role in the Mystics’ Game 1 win as she finished with 21 points on 6-7 shooting from the field, 3-4 from beyond the arc and 6-6 from the free throw line, while also adding five rebounds and three steals. She had just 18 total points on 5-21 shooting in the entire four-game semifinal series against the Aces.
Atkins scored the first five points for the Mystics in Game 1 and had eight points midway through the opening period as Washington built an early lead. In addition to her scoring early, Atkins delivered a pair of important offensive rebounds late in the game as the Sun were making their run.
“I thought obviously Elena did what she does. I mean, 22-10-5, and we had a lot of great contributions, but the Ariel Atkins contribution was huge today, from making her first three of the game to being aggressive,” said Mystics coach Mike Thibault after the game. “That looked like the Ariel from last year in the playoffs, 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 first came with 3:27 left in the game as she corralled the rebound off an Emma Meesseman miss that led to layup by Kristi Toliver to push the Mystics lead back to double digits after the Sun had got as close as four points. The second came in the final minute and provided a stamp on her Game 1 performance as she beat Alyssa Thomas to the rebound, which essentially sealed the game as the Sun never attempted another shot.
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 29, 2019
After the game, the Mystics’ veterans were quick to heap praise on the second-year guard.
“I mean, people always ask me about Little A. They’re like, all right, what is Little A going to bring, is this moment too big for her, dadada. I’m like, listen, Little A is Little Freaking A, and she plays hard all the time and she gives everything all the time and she’s a selfless kid,” said Kristi Toliver. “Like, she is, to me, the best second-year player I’ve ever been around as far as her maturity level, her work ethic, her want to do the right thing for the team.
“And she was the difference maker for us last year. She had a great rookie season. And this year she’s just 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 play making was the difference for us because those were in critical, critical moments.”
3. Importance of Striking First
How important was it that Washington held home court and won Game 1 of this series? Since WNBA Finals went to a best-of-five series back in 2005, the team that won Game 1 has gone on to win the series 10 of 14 times.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) September 29, 2019
When the home team has won Game 1, they have gone on to win the championship six of seven times, with each of the last five occurrences ending in sweeps. The Mystics were on the wrong end of a sweep last year to Seattle, but the same pattern held true for Phoenix in 2014, Minnesota in 2013 and 2011 and Seattle again in 2010.
The Phoenix Mercury were involved in the other two series where a home team won Game 1, but did not sweep. In 2009, they won Game 1, but needed five games to clinch the series against Indiana for their second WNBA title. And in 2007, the Mercury became the only team that has lost Game 1 on the road, but come back to win the WNBA Finals in a best-of-five series, as they beat the Shock in five games for their first title. Can the Sun become the second team to pull off that feat?
4. Courtney Williams Stays Hot
Courtney Williams entered the Finals as the Sun’s leading scorer in the playoffs, having averaged 19 points on 46.3 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from beyond the arc in three games against the Los Angeles Sparks.
In Game 1 of the Finals, she scored a game-high 26 points (one shy of her playoff career high) as she shot 9-19 from the field and a blistering 6-9 from beyond the arc. Williams’ six 3-pointers are tied for second-most 3s made in WNBA Finals game, trailing only Diana Taurasi’s seven from the 2007 Finals.
“To be honest, I felt like I could do it whatever I wanted to do,” said Williams. “I mean, no shade to [Ariel Atkins], she’s a great defender, but I felt like I was getting to all my spots that I wanted to get to. I felt pretty comfortable. I think I shot the best I ever shot from the three.”
— LaChina Robinson (@LaChinaRobinson) September 29, 2019
Williams’ six 3-pointers marked a career high in any WNBA game (regular season or playoffs). Her previous high was four 3-pointers from last year’s playoff loss to Phoenix, when she shot 4-5 from deep en route to a playoff career-high 27 points. She also made four 3s (in 10 attempts) against Washington last year during the regular season.
In 2019, Williams’ regular season-high was two 3-pointers, which she made on three occasions (including a game against Washington). She made three 3s in Connecticut’s Game 2 win over Los Angeles in the semifinals, but saved her best for the Finals. Unfortunately for the Sun, her career-best shooting night from beyond the arc did not equal a win against the Mystics.
5. Connecticut Unable To Overcome Slow Start
Here is a stat that Sun coach Curt Miller will surely remind his team over as they prepare for Game 2 on Tuesday.
First Quarter: Washington 30, Connecticut 17
Final 3 Quarters: Connecticut 69, Washington 65
“I thought the first quarter killed us, obviously,” Miller said after the game. “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.”
The Sun proved they could withstand Washington’s inevitable runs on offense and answer back. They clawed their way back from a 17-point deficit to make it a four-point game in the fourth quarter, but could never fully get over the hump.
There may not be a more difficult team to make a comeback against than this Mystics team. They just posted the greatest offensive season in the history of the WNBA, so if you spot them a lead early, it is that much tougher to not only keep up with them, but outscore them enough to climb all the way back.
“I think they felt us a little bit there late in the second half, and as we cut it down and made it interesting, but ultimately you’ve got to credit their offensive execution was just outstanding when they needed it,” added Miller. “They stepped up and made big shots out of those plays. We left some points on the board, missing some shots there as we got a little bit tired, and I need to probably stretch our bench a little bit more.”
No team relies on its starters more than the Sun as they have used the same starting five in every game of the season and playoffs and that group has played by far the most minutes of any five-player lineup across the league.
In Game 1, the starters between both teams played to a draw, but it was the Mystics bench that provided some separation, outscoring the Sun bench 16-8 in their nine-point victory.