Vintage Elena Delle Donne was on full display in the Emerald City; however her effort was in vain as the Mystics failed to close out Game 1 of their first-round WNBA playoff series against the Seattle Storm.
The teams are very evenly matched on paper. As mentioned in the Storm-Mystics preview, the biggest question mark headed into this series for Washington was how the offense would perform.
In early June, I coined the phrase the “Delle Donne dynamic,” suggesting that Washington was too reliant on the 2x MVP to produce a respectable offense. At the time, the sample size was insignificant and the team was winning so the cries fell on deaf ears. The Mystics were simply an average offense with an exceptional defense, which translated to wins earlier in the season. However, when Delle Donne rested, the struggles manifested themselves in disappointing losses to teams like Los Angeles, New York, and Phoenix.
Delle Donne’s regular season on/off numbers don’t separate her from the league’s best players like A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart; however in Thursday night’s matchup, the Mystics had a 114 offensive rating with her on the court, and a 77 offensive rating when she went to the bench. The net rating difference is just as stark, going from a team that outscored Seattle by eight points every 100 possessions, to being outscored by Seattle by 30 points every 100 possessions.
Simply put, the game was lost in the minutes Delle Donne went to the bench.
After the game, head coach Mike Thibault pointed out how the team needed to correct a few mistakes, but he sounded optimistic that Game 2 is within reach.
“A couple people didn’t have the shooting game we needed them to have, if we make those shots on Sunday we walk out of [Seattle] with a win,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of complaints about the overall effort. I thought we could have moved the ball a little bit quicker, I thought we had to make a few too many 1-on-1 plays, I think that slowed us down.”
Help for Delle Donne wasn’t there on Thursday, but Shakira Austin had an encouraging performance in her first postseason game. Two weeks ago, she admitted to not feeling like a rookie after being one of only two players on the team to have played in all 36 regular season games.
Austin finished with 12 points (on 6-of-10 shooting) and seven rebounds. It was her offensive rebounding that set the tone in the first half. Her 12 points are the most by a Mystics rookie in the playoffs since Ariel Atkins in 2018 against Seattle.
“First playoff game and going head-to-head with good players, I thought she did a commendable job in the first game,” Thibault said.
Finding where the game was lost for Washington is a difficult endeavor, mainly because the game was back-and-forth, with the teams trading leads until the final buzzer.
With 3:16 remaining in the fourth quarter, Delle Donne made a difficult running jumper over the outstretched arms of Tina Charles to put Washington up 79-75. It felt like at that moment, Washington had stolen a game on the road. On the other end, Washington forced Stewart into a difficult shot but failed to secure the rebound, which went back to Stewart, who found Jewell Loyd for an open three.
Loyd had just four points headed into the fourth quarter; however, that shot sparked a run of what would be 10-straight points for her, as she closed the game out for Seattle, giving them the 86-83 win.
Delle Donne admitted postgame that the missed opportunities didn’t sit right with the team.
“We spoke about whoever does the little things is going to win the series … down the stretch we had some key rebounds that we missed, there were times we didn’t get the ball where it needed to be, or were careless with the ball at times.”
However, despite the loss, the feeling amongst the Mystics locker room is that they are in an excellent position to win Game 2 on Sunday. Natasha Cloud even declared to the DC faithful that there will be a Game 3 played in Washington.
The turnaround is quick. Sunday’s game is for all the marbles.