The Atlanta Dream’s league-leading defense didn’t show up Sunday in its WNBA Eastern Conference final matchup against the Washington Mystics until it was too late.
It cost them the game.
The Dream, who held opponents to league lows in field goal percentage (42.3), 3-point percentage (32.1) and free-throw percentage (77.9) in the regular season, couldn’t defend the Mystics scoring funneled through 6-foot-5 forward Elena Delle Donne in the Mystics 87-84 win in Game 1 Sunday.
Delle Donne, a former league MVP and Rookie of the Year, shot 10 of 22 from the field for 32 points, recorded 13 rebounds and hit all 10 of her free-throw attempts.
“I thought we missed some box outs on her because we’ve actually made her inefficient in three of the four games,” Dream coach Nicki Collen said. “This wasn’t necessarily an inefficient game for her but she still was under 50 percent from the field. ... I think what we got to do is do a better job taking the arc away from them on Tuesday night.”
Other than Delle Donne’s impressive game, one of the biggest factors why the Dream were forced to play from behind was the lack of defense from the 3-point line.
In the first half, the Mystics made 7 of 14 shots from the 3-point line, compared to the Dream who only made 3 of 13. The Mystics finished Sunday hitting 11 of 26 shots beyond the arc while the Dream only made six 3 pointers.
“We know that 35 percent of their shots are 3s. ... We talked abut making them go two-by-two-by-two,” Collen said. “We closed out too short on a number of them. We’ve got to be high hands, a little tighter.”
The Dream, who also led the league in forced turnovers in the regular season, lost the turnover battle to the Mystics, only forcing four turnovers while they committed eight.
While the Dream’s defense wasn’t as dominant as it had been in the regular season, the team adjusted in the second half to limit the Mystics scoring opportunities and finish the game having allowed a 38.9 field goal percentage. The Mystics entered Sunday’s game averaging 96 points and 56.9 percent from the field this postseason.
Collen noted post-game that the Mystics came out “incredibly hot” scoring 51 first-half points on a Dream team that allowed opponents a league low 79.5 points per game in the regular season.
“I thought our pressure was much better in the fourth quarter,” Collen said. “We got more aggressive, we trapped a little bit, we mixed up defenses a little better. We’ve certainly got to move in the next game. I’ve got to do a better job making adjustments from timeout to timeout and changing things up especially in their ball screen action.”
Led by Tiffany Hayes and Alex Bentley, the Dream rallied in the fourth quarter to nearly erase their first-half mistakes on defense and come within three points of the Mystics. The Dream missed 3-pointer in the finals seconds that would have tied the game.
Hayes totaled 11 fourth-quarter points while Bentley had the other seven.
“I knew they needed me, they needed everybody, but we started to come together on defense but that’s what always drives me to be better on offense and then we became stronger in the fourth quarter,” Hayes said.
Bentley led the Dream with 19 points, followed by Hayes with 17 points and center Elizabeth Williams who totaled 15 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Bentley also scored eight points during a 12-0 run by the Dream in the first quarter that helped Atlanta tie the game at 26.
While the Dream didn’t look fatigued against the Mystics after having a double-bye, the grit seen on the floor in the last two months of the regular season was absent until the game’s final 10 minutes.
Collen, the AP Coach of the Year, said the Dream’s loss after seven days without a game goes along with a pattern she’s seen all season— long breaks create problems.
“I think when we look at this stretch where we’ve play really, really well, we actually when we’ve had long breaks, it hasn’t necessarily been good to us,” Collen said. “We came back after the All-Star game, after the All-Star break, played one and got rolling again and same thing with our long break going into the Phoenix game.
“I’m not sure you that won’t see in some ways see a more energized team on Tuesday night as we battle back out of a hole.”
The Dream and Mystics face off for Game 2 in the best-of-five Tuesday at 8 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion.