ATLANTA — Elena Delle Donne had just finished authoring another masterpiece Sunday afternoon when she leaned into the microphone to answer a question during the postgame news conference.
The all-star forward’s fourth-quarter outburst, during which she scored or assisted on 13 of the Washington Mystics’ final 17 points, contributed significantly to an 87-84 win against the Atlanta Dream in Game 1 of the best-of-five WNBA semifinals, so teammate Natasha Cloud provided a simple explanation for the result before Delle Donne could get a word in.
“She’s the GOAT,” Cloud said of Delle Donne, using the acronym for greatest of all-time.
The dash of hyperbole notwithstanding, Delle Donne was virtually unguardable on the way to 32 points, matching a franchise playoff record, and 13 rebounds as third-seeded Washington wrested home-court advantage from the second-seeded Dream in front of an announced crowd of 5,086 at McCamish Pavilion.
“My teammates have trust in me in those situations to attack and try to make the right read,” Delle Donne said. “I was flowing today, so we kind of just ran the offense through me and I just kind of had to make reads and attack. If someone else is flowing, we run it through them, and that’s just kind of how our team is, super unselfish, and it’s why we’re successful.”
Game 2 is set for Tuesday night, but before then, Mystics Coach Mike Thibault is certain to show his players video footage of a frenetic final few minutes in which guard Tiffany Hayes almost single-handedly willed the Dream to an improbable comeback.
The Mystics led by nine with less than two minutes remaining before Hayes scored six unanswered points in a span of 48 seconds. Hayes then had a layup come tantalizingly close to falling, but the ball fell off the rim with 33 seconds left.
Atlanta still trailed by three with 3.1 seconds left, when forward Jessica Breland’s three-point attempt from the top of the arc rattled around the rim and out. The Dream had a final opportunity to force overtime off an inbounds play with less than a second left, but Mystics rookie guard Ariel Atkins swatted away a pass intended for Atlanta guard Alex Bentley (19 points), and the clock expired.
“That’s what Coach said, to guard the three-point line,” Atkins said. “We knew that was the only way they could tie the game, or if we fouled them they could possibly win it, so we just were going to have to keep them off the three-point line.”
Atkins chipped in on the other end of the court with 15 points, going 3 for 5 from beyond the arc, and was among four Mystics players to score in double figures. Washington is making its second straight appearance in the WNBA semifinals after being swept last season by the Minnesota Lynx.
This time, Delle Donne vowed following a 96-64 victory over the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Sparks in Thursday night’s single-elimination quarterfinals that the Mystics would be “ready and locked in.”
No player, it turns out, was more locked in Sunday than Delle Donne, whose scoring output included 10 of 10 from the foul line, marking the most made free throws in a postseason game for a Mystics player. The majority of Delle Donne’s free throws resulted from her catching the ball with her back to the basket, posting up either a shorter or slower defender and drawing contact.
“You need to make Delle Donne shoot over the top of you and keep her off the glass because she shoots with a forward lean, which automatically kind of leads her right back to her missed shots, which tended to be short when she missed them,” Atlanta Coach Nicki Collen said. “We actually needed her to be long.”
The Mystics built the game’s first double-digit lead midway through the first quarter on consecutive three-pointers from Atkins and Cloud followed by a steal and fast-break layup from Delle Donne.
The surge prompted Collen to call timeout, and she inserted Bentley soon after. The former all-star acquired from the Connecticut Sun via a trade in early July scored 10 in a row for the Dream — which was playing without two-time scoring champion Angel McCoughtry because of a season-ending injury — to tie the score at 26 by the end of the quarter.
The Mystics leaned on their three-point shooting to forge a 51-42 lead at halftime. Washington made 11 of 26 from beyond the arc, including 7 of 14 in the first half, and made all 20 of its free throw attempts to grab the series lead.
“We expect to make free throws,” Thibault said. “We have five people on our team, I think, because of their attempts, [who] are in the top 15 in the league. So Elena’s always been that way, but we have a lot of people who make free throws and we felt in a series like this you have to win some of those battles — the rebounding, the turnovers and free throws. And we won the free throw and turnover battle tonight.”