ATLANTA — Heading into the WNBA semifinals, Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault deployed some gamesmanship in assessing the Atlanta Dream’s home-court advantage in the best-of-five series.
Thibault suggested it was the Mystics instead who might be in a position of strength, knowing at least one victory in the first two matchups at McCamish Pavilion could alter the complexion of the series, even more so if that triumph came in Game 1.
Having survived Sunday’s series opener, the Mystics indeed find themselves with leverage as they turn their attention to Tuesday night’s Game 2 in which Washington is seeking to win a second game in a playoff series for the second time in franchise history .
“It’s huge for us,” said Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who scored 13 points with six assists and no turnovers in the 87-84 Game 1 victory.
The Mystics went through a light workout Monday afternoon on the same court where they won their fourth road game in the past six tries, underscoring their comfort at opposing arenas this year.
During the regular season, Washington won a franchise-record 10 road games. Its only loss on the road this month came against the reigning WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, who held a ceremony afterward in honor of retiring point guard Lindsay Whalen, one of the most beloved and accomplished players in league history.
Thibault also rested his starters in the second half of that essentially meaningless game after Atlanta had secured the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a double-bye for which third-seeded Washington had been in contention.
“Get some sleep, get some ice baths and everything else,” Thibault said. “I mean, it’s a physical series. Our plan as coaches is we’ll watch film and we’ll then break it down for players and we’ll go through the things we thought we did well, the things we think we can correct.”
The Mystics didn’t do much that required fixing during the first half Sunday, committing one turnover and going 7 for 14 from three-point range and 10 for 10 on free throws for a nine-point lead heading into the locker room.
But breakdowns in the later stages of the fourth quarter enabled the Dream to flirt with an improbable comeback from nine points behind with less than two minutes to play. Atlanta guard Tiffany Hayes scored six points in less than a minute, and the Dream thereafter had multiple opportunities to tie or draw within one.
Hayes had a layup that barely missed with 33 seconds left, and Jessica Breland’s three-pointer with three seconds to play rattled around the rim and out.
The final sequence with less than a second remaining featured Mystics rookie forward Ariel Atkins swatting away an inbound pass intended for Dream three-point specialist Alex Bentley, allowing the clock to expire.
“We’re just shaking our head,” said Bentley, a reserve who led the Dream with 19 points and went 3 for 5 from beyond the arc. “It’s just crazy that we didn’t pull this one out, but it gets us excited about the next games coming up for sure because easily we should have and could have won this game, so once we clean up the defensive game plan, we’re going to feel pretty good about it.”
Elena Delle Donne proved virtually impossible to guard for Atlanta, which threw multiple defenders at the Mystics’ first-team all-WNBA selection but elected not to double-team in several instances in the fourth quarter.
Delle Donne thus was able to score or assist on 13 of Washington’s 17 fourth-quarter points. Delle Donne finished with 32 points, matching a franchise playoff high she shares with teammate Kristi Toliver, to go with 13 rebounds.
She went 10 for 10 from the free throw line to set a franchise playoff record for foul shots made.
The Mystics sank all 20 of their free throw attempts and committed four turnovers, a franchise playoff low, to finish ahead in two of the three categories Thibault has been emphasizing during the postseason.
The other is rebounding, where Washington ended at a 40-37 deficit against the Dream.
“A series is a chess match,” Thibault said. “They’ll make adjustments. We’ll make a few, and you’ll see probably a few new things on Tuesday from both teams, but I think energy and rest are the biggest things. This time of year you’re not going on the court and practicing a lot. You’re just trying to make little tweaks to make sure you’re ready to go for the next game.”