With a very-limited Elena Delle Donne, the Washington Mystics relied on the power of the three.
Despite suffering from a partially-herniated disc, league MVP Delle Donne suited up and scored 13 points in 26 minutes. However, it was a record-tying 16 threes that propelled D.C. past the Connecticut Sun 91-84 in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.
When the game began, it was clear immediately that Delle Donne would not be herself: her characteristic smoothness replaced by a tentative stiffness. Because of the way Delle Donne raises the play of her teammates, her condition had to be of concern. Could the other members of the Mystics play to their potential when not bolstered by their MVP?
Yes, they could. And, boy, did they.
Washington came out firing from three, hovering over the boards in the first half
Natasha Cloud set the tone in the first quarter, taking advantage of her matchup with Shekinna Stricklen to take and make open shots. Although she’s not Washington’s most consistent three-point shooter, Cloud’s shot was falling on Sunday afternoon. In the first quarter, Cloud drained two of her three attempts from distance, a sign of things to come for herself and her team. Cloud would finish the contest with five threes, tying a career-high.
In contrast, the first quarter foreshadowed less than promising trends for Connecticut. Multiple Sun players missed easy, open shots, preventing the packed house at Mohegan Sun Arena from providing a momentum boost and allowing the Mystics to extend their first-quarter lead. In addition to Cloud, Kristi Toliver had it going early, swishing a pair of threes. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Delle Donne each added a three as well. It should not be surprising that, when open, Ms. 50-40-90 would convert. Delle Donne would shoot an enviable 83.3% from the field, making five of her six shots.
After the first period, Washington led 32-17.
But it was not only Mystics threes and Sun mistakes that gave D.C. this 15-point lead. After Jonquel Jones turned in a historic performance last Tuesday, Washington was intent upon stopping the newly-minted “Bahamian Beast.” Although one of the weakest rebounding teams in the league during the regular season, the Mystics refused to allow the Sun, especially Jones, to again dominate the boards and secure second-chance points.
As an indication of the frustration that the Mystics’ persistence was causing, Sun head coach (and birthday boy) Curt Miller deployed Alyssa Thomas at point guard at the end of the first quarter and start of the second. The do-everything Engine could not ignite her squad’s offense, though, and neither could Courtney Williams. The self-proclaimed “bucket” failed to exploit the attention on Jones to find a rhythm.
Just as Washington appeared poised to take a double-digit lead into halftime, Connecticut dialed up its defense, forcing the Mystics into inefficient isolation attempts. This defensive pressure produced a much-anticipated first basket for Jonquel Jones, part of a 12-0 Sun run in the final two minutes of the half.
Yet, Kristi Toliver prevented Connecticut from entering the break with all the momentum. She sank a tough shot as the halftime buzzer sounded to cool the Sun.
Kristi. Kalm. Kool. Kollected. pic.twitter.com/atBoojzbCM— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) October 6, 2019
Still, the Sun quickly had erased an overall disappointing first half to trail only by four at the break, 43-39.
Washington maintained status quo from three, on the boards in the second half
At the outset of the third period, the Sun immediately went to Jones, who scored on a put-back two. Yet, this quick bucket did not kick-start her offense; she still struggled to influence the action. Connecticut remained in striking distance of Washington early in the period, with Shekinna Stricklen making a pair of threes. However, the Sun could not match the intensity of the Mystics, who were intent on always making the extra play. This sense of relentlessness was embodied by Aerial Powers, who flew around the floor during her third-quarter stint. Cloud and Toliver also made some timely shots, allowing the Mystics to claim an 11-point lead after three, 68-57.
During the break between quarters, Curt Miller insisted to ESPN’s Holly Rowe, “We’ve still got a run in us.”
Emma Meesseman almost immediately snuffed out this possibility, opening the fourth quarter with an avalanche of threes. Recalling her semifinal performance against the Las Vegas Aces, she swished three threes in succession.
EMMA MEESSEMAN— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) October 6, 2019
DANGER ZONE pic.twitter.com/M70SRIJgv3
Toliver then appeared to bury the Sun, sinking a nasty step-back from deep. This record-tying 16th three extended the Washington lead to 18.
The indefatigable Alyssa Thomas (who would play all but the last 30 seconds) attempted to spur a Sun comeback, sparking a 10-2 run with approximately six minutes to play. But the last-gasp effort could not overcome the overall awful offensive performances of Jonquel Jones and Courtney Williams.
Jones followed up her all-time Game 2 with only nine points and nine rebounds and Williams finished with six points on 2-of-9 shooting. Comparatively, Jasmine Thomas had a strong scoring performance, with 16 points. However, her points were not impactful: they were not a product of, nor helped to produce, an offensive rhythm for the Sun. Her four turnovers did not help either. On both ends of the floor, Thomas was Connecticut’s most effective performer, scoring 13 points, grabbing eight rebounds, tossing nine assists, and snagging two steals. Stricklen added 16 points, with 3-of-5 shooting from three.
With approximately three-and-a-half minutes to go, Washington held onto a 10-point lead. Then, for the first time in the game, Delle Donne drove to the basket. Her running layup was the dagger. The MVP soon would exit, having turned in an admirable effort. Her teammates, boosted by her presence, elevated their play and earned the 91-84 victory.
Kristi Toliver deserves much credit for this result. In the 2019 playoffs, Toliver has been uneven, at times ineffective and overeager. Sunday afternoon, she was excellent — becoming only the third player in WNBA history to notch at least 20 points and 10 assists in a Finals game. She shot 4-of-4 from three and 7-of-9 overall. Meesseman added 21 points, shooting a slightly-less scintillating 3-of-4 from distance and 8-of-13 from the floor. Natasha Cloud contributed 19 points.
A look ahead to Game 4
After the four-day break between Games 2 and 3, Game 4 is Tuesday night, giving both teams only one day of rest. This tight turnaround raises some critical questions.
What will EDD’s condition be?
Will the MVP be able to recover from Sunday’s action and be ready to go? Will the lack of an extended break make her less effective? Or, EED being EDD, will she be excellent, regardless of a still-balky back?
Will Alyssa Thomas finally tire?
Having played all but 30 seconds in three games, at what point does Thomas wear down? When will this load cause her intensity to lag? Or, will she remain an unforgiving freight train?
Can Washington maintain their intense attention to the glass?
Or, having stolen a victory in Connecticut, will their rebounding focus and ferocity lapse?
Can Courtney Williams bounce back? Can Jonquel Jones?
The ever-confident Williams is likely to come out firing, whether or not her shots are falling. Jones must rediscover the dominance she demonstrated in Game 2. Being a superstar requires consistently raising one’s play. Jones has the ability. Taking a cue from Williams, she has to find the necessary attitude.
Will Washington again be this hot from three?
It is unlikely. However, they are the best three-point shooting team in WNBA history.
We’ll find out on Tuesday evening! Game 4 tips off at 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2).