Deciding Game 3s deserve their own articles, so coverage today comes in two parts. First the East, and coming soon details of the exciting conclusion to the West’s first-round.
In any sport, the most exciting games are when it’s winner-takes-all. When it comes down to a final contest where you either win and move on, or lose and go home. So last night was a treat for WNBA fans. Two first-round series had gone the distance, and were heading for deciders on the same night. Two teams would be left to pack their bags and check travel plans for their overseas gigs during the offseason; two would be opening the conference finals on Thursday night.
We began in Atlanta, where neutrals could only hope for a more entertaining product than the series had provided so far. The Dream and Mystics had combined to shoot 33% from the field in the opening two games, and it had not been a pretty exhibition of basketball. The players available were the same as for Game 2, with both Sancho Lyttle and Le’coe Willingham still missing for Atlanta, leaving Aneika Henry to start at power forward again. It had worked out pretty well for the Dream two nights earlier.
But it was Washington who got off to the better start in this one. The speed and energy of Atlanta’s defense had made a major impact on Game 2 and allowed the Dream to take control despite not shooting particularly well, but this time it was the Mystics’ quickness and conversion in transition that dominated the early stages. They were pushing down the floor hard, looking for open shots before Atlanta’s defense could get set, and actually knocking several down. Ivory Latta hit a couple of threes, Kia Vaughn was running the floor hard and finishing and Monique Currie hit shots as well. These were all positive signs for a Washington team that had been successful defensively in this series, but often struggled to score points. They were the ones with speed to their game, rather than Atlanta.
The Dream trailed by as many as 11 points in the opening period. Their defense didn’t start with the same kind of energy as in Game 2, and when you get beaten down the court in transition it’s hard to send traps or double-teams to unsettle your opponent. Usually, you’re still struggling to pick up your own man, never mind send an extra defender. That’s doubly true, of course, when Angel McCoughtry’s on your team and barely bothering to run back on defense. It was annoying in the regular season – it’s scarcely believable in a playoff game that could end her team’s season. Offensively, Atlanta had many of the same problems in the opening period that they’d suffered from during the first two games. Defenders staying in front of McCoughtry, leading to forced jump shots that didn’t go in; and Kia Vaughn continuing to shut down Erika de Souza on the low block. Fortunately for Atlanta, Vaughn picked up two early fouls in barely three minutes of action, the second a thoroughly dumb reach when Erika attacked on a drive from the elbow. Vaughn went to the bench, but she had such an impact on Erika in this series that every time Michelle Snow came in it seemed to take Erika a little while to recognise that she now had much greater opportunity to attack.
However, after dominating the first eight minutes of the game, Washington gave most of their advantage back in the remainder of the first quarter. It was already looking like one of those games where their young, inexperienced bench led to an offensive collapse, rather than a burst of energy. With Armintie Herrington and Alex Bentley providing a boost from the Dream’s bench, Atlanta injected some pace and took advantage of increasing Mystics mistakes, and were back within two points by the end of the opening period.
The second quarter was remarkably similar to the first. Washington had better speed and attack to their game, and continued to shoot a high percentage as they created good looks either in transition or with decent ball movement. But they were still creating problems for themselves with foul trouble. McCoughtry got an extended rest early in the period, but Monique Currie – Washington’s primary defender on McCoughtry throughout this series – picked up her third foul in a loose ball scramble before Angel even came back into the game. Moments later, still only midway through the second quarter, Crystal Langhorne added her second and third fouls in quick succession. Some of these were harsh calls but several were dumb mistakes by the players involved – especially dumb when they could see as clearly as anyone that the young Washington backups were struggling to perform in the heat of a deciding playoff game. It was a game where the Mystics needed their veterans, but they were making things difficult for themselves.
Atlanta continued to hang around, despite Washington’s efficient scoring, thanks to offensive rebounding and steals. McCoughtry continued to jack up some horrible shots, but when they managed to penetrate Atlanta still had some success. Herrington was huge with her defense and aggression on the glass, despite looking like she was still playing through pain due to her shoulder injury, and McCoughtry, Erika and Henry were all working on the boards as well. Washington lost some of their presence inside when Langhorne sat down, and the procession of fouls was topped off for the Mystics when Vaughn reached over to catch McCoughtry’s arm on a jump shot to end the half. Somehow, Washington had managed to shoot 58% from the field in the first half, and still only lead 41-39 due to the turnovers and free throws they’d conceded. And their entire starting frontcourt were on three fouls apiece.
This is probably feeling a little one-note by now, but the big moments in the early stages of the second half were yet more fouls. Vaughn was called for an illegal screen only a couple of minutes into the third quarter (slightly harsh, but she always sticks her leg out, and Latta moved to use the pick a little early). Then Currie was called for a push-off when she extended her arm on a drive against McCoughtry moments later (Angel went reeling backwards just to make absolutely sure the officials saw it). Then a scrambled Atlanta possession saw an off-balance Tiffany Hayes hit the deck (as she always does several times in every game) and draw a foul for the slightest of bumps by Langhorne. Less than four minutes into the second half, and now all three frontcourt starters for Washington were on four personal fouls. The Mystics were still on top to that point, leading by seven midway through the third quarter, as their defense remained effective against Atlanta and the pace of the game had slowed. Washington head coach Mike Thibault decided to leave all three players in for the time being, despite their foul trouble, and let them try to play through it.
The play-by-play and the box score will tell you that none of those key players picked up another foul for the rest of the night, which might suggest that it wasn’t really an issue. That would be a mistaken impression. Atlanta came right back into the game in the third quarter because Washington grew painfully passive. They weren’t going after loose balls or rebounds with the same tenacity, because so many of them were petrified of picking up more fouls. It became even more of a problem when Matee Ajavon – who’d shot badly but played her part in the speed and transition attack of Washington – added her third and fourth fouls. The latter was a particularly egregious call, when a poke-away by McCoughtry led to a chase for the loose ball, and Ajavon apparently committed the illegal act of fouling McCoughtry’s flailing arm with her face. It was the most noticeably ridiculous decision from the officials in an evening when so few had gone Washington’s way.
Now it was the Mystics clinging on. Somehow they still led by two at the end of the third quarter, but their offense had become an endless series of jump shots, and they weren’t falling any more. The pace and aggression had been taken out of their game, and McCoughtry’s awful shooting at the other end was really the main reason they were still in front. In the fourth, Atlanta finally got their own transition game going, McCoughtry remembered that she was allowed to create for other people, and the Dream took control. Multiple times, Vaughn was pulled away from Erika to help cut off McCoughtry, which led to finishes for Erika at the rim either on dump-off passes or putbacks. Washington were starting to look tired and disheartened, as Atlanta began to outwork them. The Dream were getting out in transition, but it usually wasn’t the first person who managed to complete the play. It was someone trailing, beating the defense down the floor, and making the extra effort to complete the break and turn it into points. A 9-0 run created a 10-point lead for Atlanta with barely five minutes left in the game.
And that was just about all she wrote. That sequence amped up Atlanta and raised their confidence level, so that they started hitting all kinds of shots, from a short jumper for Erika, to a turnaround in the lane for Henry, to a runner for Jasmine Thomas. Washington came within six in the final stages, but by then they were fouling intentionally and tossing up shots from deep with distant hopes of a comeback. Atlanta held on for an 80-72 victory, and advance to face Indiana in the Eastern Finals.
Drawing fouls has always been something that Atlanta are very good at. They carve out ways to slice into the paint – they have to considering their inability to shoot – and look to either convert or draw whistles. So I’d be giving them credit if I felt that they’d forced Washington into the foul trouble that played a key role in turning this game. But it seemed more a case of some poor decisions from a few important Mystics veterans, and some seriously bad luck. Their inability to hit a shot in the second half obviously made things more difficult as well. Currie, Vaughn and Latta were hot in the first half, while nobody in a Mystics jersey shot well in the second. But their problems all began with the passivity they fell into when so many players began worrying about avoiding fouls more than continuing to execute the gameplan. Of course, this is still a distinctly successful season for Washington, after a couple of years of desperate futility. They finished at .500, made it back to the postseason, and were one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals (where they would’ve had home-court advantage). Mike Thibault has engendered a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that had become a punchline, and despite this loss there’s still an air of positivity around the Mystics going forward. It’s just disappointing when for so long this game looked within their grasp.
Somehow, Atlanta are still alive. You have to credit them for fighting to the end and stepping up enough at either end of the floor to make it through this series, but it sure wasn’t pretty. McCoughtry finished the three games a horrible 16-62 (26%), and consistently struggled to break down Washington’s defense. Hayes, Herrington and Bentley combined to offer enough help from the perimeter to pull them through this game – Hayes hit a few huge threes when they needed them, while Herrington’s impact was felt all across the floor. Erika de Souza struggled throughout the series due to the impressive defense from Vaughn, but stepped up in the fourth quarter of Game 3, running the floor hard to finish plays when Vaughn couldn’t be in position to stop her. By hook or by crook, they made it through. Now it’s on to another rematch with Indiana, who came back from 1-0 down (losing the first game at home) to dump Atlanta out in the first-round last year. Both teams know each other very well by this point, so there won’t be many surprises, but if they play like they did for much of this series, Atlanta are in trouble.
Part Two, featuring Game 3 of the Los-Angeles-Phoenix series will be up later tonight.