D.C. — Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver dribbled out a delayed high pick-and-roll with 6’4 teammate Emma Meesseman. There were four minutes left to play in a six-point lead over the Connecticut Sun in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, and her opponent had just marched back from a 17-point deficit in the quarter prior. The Sun were just starting to crack the Mystics’ code. But Toliver stayed steady and read the floor.
When their defenders switched, Meesseman, the sweet-shooting forward who torched the Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals, posted up 5’10 guard Courtney Williams on the wing. But Toliver didn’t take that bait. With 6’6 center Jonquel Jones draped on her, she looked to Meesseman’s direction, and caused the backline of the Sun’s defense, Shekinna Stricklen, to rotate over in anticipation of helping the mismatch. That was part of her plan.
Then Toliver didn’t throw the ball where Connecticut had been double-teaming all quarter. Instead, she ball-faked to throw Jones off a step in the wrong direction, and rocketed a laser to a weak-side cutting Natasha Cloud in the paint.
“There it is!” ESPN’s hot mic picked up Toliver yelling. “There it is!”
Cloud then peaked over her left shoulder and funneled an assist into the corner for a wide-open Ariel Atkins three-point look in the most efficient scoring zone the game offers.
ATKINS BACK FOR MOR3 pic.twitter.com/5zkdH7zlVy— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) September 29, 2019
The Mystics had countered yet another Sun adjustment in an endless game of chess and never looked back, ultimately finishing the job, 95-86. The No. 1 offense in league history showed how it reached its throne yet again.
There is no way to contain the Mystics’ offense
Playoff basketball teams are only as strong as their weakest link. Unlike the regular season, teams play series, and have dedicated hours and hours to scouting opponents’ tendencies and identifying who, in an ideal world, they’d like taking the shots against them.
For Washington, it was clear all game long that it wanted Jasmine Thomas, who finished 3-of-14 shooting from the floor, firing shots up. A defensive-minded guard, Thomas only made 39 percent of her shots from the field during the season, and a mere 29 percent of her shots from three-point range. So the Mystics used 6’2 center LaToya Sanders as a roaming defender to help on Alyssa Thomas, Courtney Williams and Jonquel Jones, and only loosely attached her to Jasmine Thomas. The Mystics let the law of averages take the wheel.
The Sun couldn’t replicate such strategy. And it’s not their fault, because no team can. Washington doesn’t have a weak offensive link. Any and everybody can be potent on any given night because the Mystics have the league’s most sound rotation. On Sunday, Ariel Atkins, a player who averaged five points per game in the series before, scored 21 on seven shots.
The Mystics gave 10 minutes of game time or more to seven players in Game 1. Six of them shoot 33 percent or better from three-point range including two north of 40. The seventh shoots mid-range shots to the fifth-best percentage (43.7) of any player who takes three or more per game.
Crazy-efficient shooting is just half the game. The Mystics are also historically careful with the ball despite incredibly quick and decisive movements with it. In the regular season, the team only turned the ball over 12 times per game, best in the league, and assisted on 22 makes, also best in the league.
So what is Connecticut supposed to do?
The Sun tried to unsettle the Mystics. They really did.
The Mystics prefer to quicken the pace and move the ball around the arc until the moment strikes one of their talents just right. It’s what their roster was built to do. But that identity doesn’t limit how they can score for 40 minutes per game.
Sun head coach Curt Miller tried to stop the onslaught of first-half triples and open jumpers by switching his defenders on screens and forcing the Mystics to succeed in isolation in the second half. Rather than the natural gravity of a fleet of shooters creating their own space, he tried to force the Mystics to beat his team one-on-one.
For a stretch, it frazzled Washington’s rhythm, and sparked a comeback to put his team in position to steal Game 1. Toliver played a bit of hero ball, and players took contested shots with the clock running down.
But it didn’t take long for Washington to persist. Ariel Atkins bullied her way to the cup, and Toliver danced around the perimeter until she decided to step-back. MVP Elena Delle Donne hung in the air to connect on shots in the paint over defenders. “She’s the only person in the world” who can create space like that, Miller said after the game.
The Sun’s final adjustment of the game was short-lived too. The fourth quarter is when Miller primarily sent his team to double Meesseman or Delle Donne off the catch and rotate the defense early in anticipation of an easy steal.
The only way Connecticut was going to outscore Washington is if it moved the ball in transition with engine Alyssa Thomas orchestrating the break, and this defensive stand allowed her to leak out.
But that scheme only lasted for less than a quarter, broken with the Cloud cut into the Atkins three. The Mystics dominate one way, but can adapt to the next on the fly.
“They’re so good at making penetrate-and-kick threes that if you over-help,” Miller said, “they’re going to pick you apart.”
The Sun will have to throw in new defensive wrinkles to keep the Mystics on edge in Game 2. Or else this series could be over in a hurry.