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Mystics guard Ariel Atkins lets her shot do the talking in the WNBA Finals

Mystics guard Ariel Atkins found her shot during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against Connecticut. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Ariel Atkins is a woman of few words, so few that the Washington Mystics once actually held a vote to determine whether quiet center LaToya Sanders or the stoic guard is more introverted. Everyone on the team voted for Atkins except for Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault, who voted with the caveat that while it’s harder to get Sanders to talk, when she does, she usually has more to say.

It was no surprise, then, to hear Atkins’s response to her sizzling 21-point performance in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday.

“It was nice to see the ball go through the net,” she said Monday, ahead of Tuesday’s Game 2 in Washington. Then she nodded to signal she was finished with her thought.

Atkins isn’t being cheeky or sour when she speaks in such a straightforward manner; it’s just that she is hard to rile up. The 23-year-old operates with a veteran’s steadiness on and off the court, a characteristic she first displayed when she started all but five games last year as a rookie. Her breakthrough came in the 2018 playoffs, when she averaged 15.2 points and shot 48 percent from the field in nine games. She seemed unaffected by pressure as she poured in 20 points in the decisive Game 5 of the semifinal series against Atlanta that sent Washington to its first WNBA Finals.

That even keel has served Atkins well in the second postseason of her career. She has seen her numbers dip considerably — she averaged 4.5 points and shot 23.8 percent from the field in the Mystics’ semifinal series against the Las Vegas Aces — but has remained focused and, at least on the outside, cool as a cucumber. It helped that she was able to contribute on the defensive end against the Aces, but Atkins is ultimately a shooter. Offensive production matters to her.

“I mean, my shot wasn’t falling,” Atkins said. “I probably took seven shots in Vegas, total, maybe? Not really sure. But it was easier the first time around [last year] because I had no idea what I was doing. But what I’ve learned this year is you start out being like, ‘I’m going to contribute in this, this, this and this way.’ And then the game unfolds, and the game asks of you certain things that you didn’t particularly think of going in. Whatever the game was asking me to give for my teammates, I’ve got to focus on that.”

Atkins barely gave the game time to get a word in before she started letting fly in Sunday’s 95-86 win against the Connecticut Sun. She hit the first basket of the night, a corner three, and was off from there. The Dallas native shot 6 for 7 from the field, including 3 for 4 from three-point range, and added five rebounds and three steals. With the Sun gaining steam in the fourth quarter, it was her three-pointer with four minutes remaining that bumped Washington’s lead from six points back to nine and swung momentum back in the Mystics’ favor. Connecticut Coach-General Manager Curt Miller called the shot “backbreaking.”

“She’s the kind of player where she makes the first one and, well, that’s that,” Thibault said.

Thibault didn’t say much to Atkins about her poor shooting during the Las Vegas series. Underneath Atkins’s calm demeanor, Thibault said, the Texan is a perfectionist who works tirelessly to learn plays and polish her skills, so all he did during the semifinals was reassure her that he continued to put her in the starting lineup for a reason.

Atkins’s teammates were similarly supportive — once the series was finished and the team was just hanging out, guard Natasha Cloud told Atkins she would still pass her the ball 10 times out of 10. Asking about Atkins’s shooting in the Las Vegas series draws an almost protective response out of the rest of the Mystics players.

Cloud bristled at the word “slump” Sunday night. Guard Kristi Toliver got similarly animated Sunday night talking about the 5-foot-8 Atkins, whom the team calls “Little A” to distinguish from 5-9 Aerial Powers.

“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,” Toliver said, gesticulating. “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. 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 B.S. And I’m just really, really proud of her and all the plays that she’s made, and tonight her rebounding and her playmaking was the difference for us because those were in critical, critical moments.”

Said Emma Meesseman: “She hasn’t maybe made as many shots against Vegas, which maybe made Connecticut think, ‘Oh, maybe we can help off her,’ which is what they did. They got punished right away for that."

Miller said his team has to be better at one-on-one defense across the board to keep Atkins and the rest of Washington’s shooters from going off as they did Sunday. The Mystics shot 54 percent in Game 1, with five scorers in double figures.

As for Atkins, whose 10.3 points and 41.6 percent shooting from the field during the regular season were critical in helping Washington become the most prolific offense the WNBA has seen, she will remain focused on the task at hand during this Finals run: Defend the Sun’s Courtney Williams and take her open shots.

“I think part of it has been not worrying about, ‘Oh, you were so good last year,’” Atkins said. “It was more like, all right, shot’s not falling, where do I need to get the ball? Because at the end of the day, I want to win, and sometimes shots just don’t fall. That’s all.”

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