SEATTLE – For the second straight game, rookie Ariel Atkins led the Washington Mystics in scoring. After her 20-point outing in Game 5 of Washington’s semifinal series-clinching win over Atlanta, Atkins poured in 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Friday.
Her effort made history as she scored the most points by a rookie in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, surpassing the previous record of 15 by Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner back in 2009.
Atkins’ 23 points on Friday increased her 2018 Playoff total to 113 points, which passed Minnesota’s Maya Moore for the most points all-time by a rookie in a single postseason. Moore scored 110 points in her first playoff run back in 2011.
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At Washington’s practice session prior to Game 1, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault praised his rookie wing for her play not only against Atlanta but throughout the season.
“That’s pretty sensational for a rookie,” he said. “Ariel did all the things we drafted her for; just not knowing it would all come together in the first year. Her ability to focus and stay in the moment is amazing for a rookie. The veterans talk to her about ‘You’re not a rookie anymore, you act like a veteran, you’re a veteran.’
“I know she was nervous. But she’s able to channel her nervous energy into really good things, so its funny because the thing I was most worried about when we drafted her was would she be aggressive enough her rookie year, would she be willing step up and not defer to everybody else. And it hasn’t been a concern since the second or third game of the season. She’s just fit right in, she’s asserted herself, and we’ve needed that from her.”
Unfortunately for the Mystics, their veterans were not able to match the production of their rookies in Game 1. Not only did Atkins knock down 10 shots from the field, but fellow rookie Myisha Hines-Allen was a perfect 4-for-4 from the field in 11 minutes off the bench – albeit most of those minutes came after the game was well in hand for Seattle.
But the rookies combined to shoot 14-for-18 (77.8%) from the field, while the rest of the team shot just 15-for-48 (31.3%) in Game 1.
“Basically we got our butts kicked in every phase of the game,” said Thibault after Game 1. “The only bright spot probably for us tonight was our bench as a whole, and Ariel Atkins probably wasn’t too phased by the whole experience, but we were a step behind.”
Delle Donne Making No Excuses
Elena Delle Donne finished with 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting and seven rebounds in Washington’s Game 1 loss on Friday. She was hounded by All-Defensive First Team selection Natasha Howard all night, who possesses a combination of length and quickness that makes her the ideal candidate to try to slow down the former MVP.
Of course, Delle Donne is also being slowed down by the bone bruise in her left knee that she suffered near the end of Game 2 of the semifinal series with Atlanta. In the first three games of the postseason, Delle Donne averaged 26.0 points on 27-for-55 (49.1%) shooting.
After missing Game 3 against Atlanta, Delle Donne returned to the lineup and played through the pain to post double-doubles in Games 4 and 5 to help the Mystics win both games and the series. However, her scoring took a hit as she averaged just 14.5 points in those games and shot 11-for-28 (39.3%) from the field.
Then came Game 1 of the Finals, which saw Delle Donne score 10 points in 25 minutes before sitting out the fourth quarter as Mystics coach Mike Thibault elected to use his reserves with his team facing a 24-point deficit to open the final 10 minutes.
But after the game, Delle Donne made it clear that she is making no excuses for her play and must find a way to contribute despite the injured knee for the remainder of the series.
“We can talk about my knee after this series,” she said. “Excuses are for losers. If I wanted to be 100 percent, I wouldn’t have come back. I knew coming into this thing I was going to have to figure out a different way to play. It might not be the same basketball I’ve been playing all season, but I still feel like I can impact this game.”
Toliver Goes Ice Cold
After opening the semifinals with three subpar shooting performances against Atlanta (10-for-39 FG, 4-for-21 3P), Kristi Toliver seemed to turn the page in the final two games of the series (16-35 FG, 7-19 3P).
She wasn’t necessarily on fire with her jump shot, but she was no longer ice cold either. And it was enough to help propel the Mystics to back-to-back wins to take the series and advance to the Finals.
But Toliver’s shot abandoned her again on Friday night in Seattle as she scored just five points on 2-for-11 shooting from the field and 1-for-8 from beyond the arc. The Storm had forward Alysha Clark defending Toliver to give the Mystics guard a longer and stronger defender to contend with.
Now the Mystics will need to make adjustments to help free up Toliver and get her offense going in Game 2.
“The good part of the series, we get a chance to recoup and regroup tomorrow and come back and play better on Sunday,” said Thibault.
Storm Defense Leads To Offense
Seattle’s defense came out aggressive and put pressure on the Mystics offense from the opening tip. They forced turnovers and turned those miscues into fast break opportunities and easy baskets.
“I thought our defense helped our offense today in a lot of ways,” said Storm coach Dan Hughes. “We were able to create opportunities to play in transition as well as in the half court.
“We just sped them up a little bit to be honest with you, made them play a little faster. They’re such a good team. When they’re able to get to their spots and they move the ball, there’s a great beauty to how they play, and we just tried to take away some of those kind of rhythm catches where the ball moves from side to side because they’re exceptional at that, and I thought we did a good job of being aggressive, forcing it out a little bit, maybe a deflection here or there. So it helped them not quite get the rhythm that they wanted.”
The Storm outscored the Mystics 18-0 on fast break points and 50-32 on points in the paint, with most of those paint points coming on layups rather than post ups. In the first quarter alone, the Storm made 10 field goals and nine of those were layups.
“I think in general, we focused on our defense, and when you get your defense going, it motivates our offense,” said Breanna Stewart. “When you get steals and layups, the crowd goes nuts and you just keep going. You don’t feel tired anymore; you kind of just get energized by that. That’s something that we really focus on is trying to make it hard for them and get steals and try to get some easy transition layups.”