What’s the hardest part of trying to plan against Washington Mystics? Perhaps it’s that just when you think you have the team somewhat figured out, it throws a curveball like Ariel Atkins coming out of nowhere to drop 21 points and help her team earn its first WNBA Finals win in franchise history.
Of course, Atkins wasn’t the only one to impress in Washington’s 95–86 Game 1 win. Elena Delle Donne led the Mystics with 22, Kristi Toliver looked much more like herself with 18 points and five assists while Courtney Williams went off for a game-high 26 points—including going six-of-nine from three—in an ultimately fruitless effort for the Connecticut Sun. Let’s get into the major talking points from Game 1.
Ariel Atkins Steps Up
What an absolute 180, offensively speaking, for Atkins. The second-year wing scored all of 18 points during the entirety of the Mystics’ semifinals series against the Aces and had that in just one game of the WNBA Finals.
During a game in which it seemed like neither team could miss—they actually set a WNBA Finals record with a combined field-goal percentage of 62% in the first half—Atkins is hardly the name many expected to show up time and again on the stats sheet as the Mystics piled up points.
Atkins only missed one shot the entire game—an uncontested three at the beginning of the third quarter—going three of four from deep and hitting all six of her free throws. Shekinna Stricklen just never seemed to get a handle on her for the majority of the game and Atkins made her pay, time and again.
While Atkins's offensive contributions will get the bulk of the attention this game, her defensive assignment, which just so happened to be Williams, lit her up on the other end. It’s no secret that Williams doesn’t take long to get hot and defending her is a Herculean task when you're not in the most pressured-filled series of your young career, so it will be interesting to see how this matchup evolves as the Finals continue.
Courtney Williams Remains a Bucket
Game 1 proved what we’ve all known for quite some time: It doesn’t matter what team she’s facing or who is guarding her, Courtney Williams is here to deliver buckets and let you know about it.
Williams did all she could to keep the Sun in the game Sunday, including going three for three from deep in the fourth quarter as Connecticut cut into Washington’s lead and started making D.C. fans sweat. Her confidence and scoring is going to be essential for the Sun in this series and the team can’t afford to waste another scoring outburst like this from her if it wants to win its first championship.
Also, a quick shoutout to Alyssa Thomas, who scored 20 points, employed her typical bullying tactics and generally just made life difficult for whoever she was guarding. Delle Donne still managed to get 22 points but Thomas never let her get comfortable and afforded her very little breathing space. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the MVP, but don’t expect Thomas to relent on EDD anytime soon.
The Mystics did a good job of bottling up Jonquel Jones and Jasmine Thomas, leaving Williams and Thomas to pick up the slack with a combined 46 points. You can only do so much against either player, but if all four can get loose in the ensuing games, it’ll mean big trouble for the Mystics.
The Real Kristi Toliver Has Stood Up
As if the Sun didn’t have enough to worry about in this series, it appears Toliver has her groove back.
After missing much of the late part of the season with a bone bruise in her knee and showing flashes in the semifinal series against the Aces, Toliver looked great Sunday. She distributed the ball well, nailed the shots she needed to and brought a sense of leadership and experience in the big moment to the Mystics. But I’ll let Delle Donne expound on it further.
“I mean, she's our calm. She's our calming voice,” Delle Donne said in postgame comments provided by the WNBA. “Everything she says in huddles settles us and gets our mind focused on the right things. She tells us it's not too big of a moment for us, we're ready for this, it's no different than any other game.
“It's the process of how we played the entire season and continue that. She's just our calm voice and our calm player on the floor. If you give it to her, she's going to save us in a lot of tough moments.”
This Washington team looks poised, its offense continues to hum and its big-name players are stepping up. They’ve only played one game but, no matter the ultimate outcome of the series, expect Toliver’s influence to be written all over these Finals.