Last September, the Washington Mystics skulked out of the WNBA Finals, having been swept in three games by the unstoppable Seattle Storm. A year later, the tables have turned. Elena Delle Donne has recovered from last year’s inconvenient knee injury; crafty Belgian forward Emma Meesseman is back after a season off. If their 95-86 win over the Connecticut Sun in Sunday’s Game 1 was any indication, the Mystics seem about ready to do some sweeping themselves.
Everyone was on fire; the Mystics shot 54 percent from the field and 47.6 from three. The usual suspects showed up: Delle Donne was quietly effective, Meesseman came off the bench to score 11, Kristi Toliver made some spectacular plays, and Natasha Cloud did too, chipping in with big assists. But the unlikely star of Game 1 was Mystics sophomore guard Ariel Atkins, who put up 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting, more points than she had scored in the entire four-game semifinals series against the Las Vegas Aces. It’s what makes the Mystics so acutely threatening—on any given day, a star can recede for a game and a perfectly able role player will come from nowhere to take her place.
The Sun have never really been the favorites to win this championship; they’ve capitalized on this truth by fashioning a gritty underdog identity for themselves that’s a little bit sweet and a little bit totally unbearable. (I’m a goddamn Detroit sports fan and I’m sick of it! Sick!) But now they should probably walk the walk.
Guard Courtney Williams—daughter of the only good basketball dad—kept the Sun alive from behind the arc. But Jonquel Jones, maybe the world’s best women’s basketball player for a few fascinating stretches this season, didn’t get nearly enough touches. By the end of the first half, she’d shot only three times. The usually reliable three-point threat Shekinna Stricklen went 1-for-6 from outside.
The Sun can be fun and lovely to watch and quite good, and even won two of three games against the Mystics in the regular season. (The Mystics won the third 102-59, so, uh, make of that what you can.) But no team can expect to beat the Mystics without playing their best basketball. And when the Mystics are playing their best basketball, there is very little hope at all.
Here’s the play of the night—maybe not the coolest, but a prototype of the problems the Mystics create for their opponents: When anyone could conceivably take any shot, who do you defend? Kristi Toliver fakes the pass to a double-teamed Meesseman, and instead cuts inside to Natasha Cloud, who gets the ball to a wide open Atkins in the corner. (ESPN had Toliver mic’d for most of the game, so you can hear her figure this out, delightfully, in real time.)
When the game ended, ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe asked Atkins how the Mystics had found it in them to close out the fourth quarter. “We lost to Seattle last year,” Atkins began, and that was answer enough. “Not having it?” Rowe asked. Atkins shook her head no.