As if the Connecticut Sun did not have enough challenges on the defensive end in the WNBA Finals trying to stop league MVP Elena Delle Donne and breakout Belgian forward Emma Meesseman, here comes Ariel Atkins as an additional source of firepower for the Washington Mystics.
Atkins and the Mystics look to protect home court once more in Game 2 on Tuesday night while also moving within one victory of their first WNBA title in franchise history.
The seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, Atkins is sometimes an invisible cog in Washington's highly efficient offense, one considered among the best in league history after averaging 89.3 points and 9.6 3-pointers in the regular season. Atkins - who averaged 10.3 points in the regular season - struggled through the Mystics' semifinal series versus Las Vegas, averaging 4.5 points in four games while making just 5 of 21 shots.
She put those shooting woes behind her in impressive fashion in Sunday's 95-86 victory to open the WNBA Finals. Atkins went 3 of 4 from 3-point range and 6 of 7 overall, finishing with 21 points - three more than her output for all of the previous series.
"I mean, people always ask me about little A," Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver said of Atkins. "They're like, all right, what is little A going to bring, is this moment too big for her, da da da. I'm like, listen, little A is little freaking A, and she plays hard all the time and she gives everything all the time and she's a selfless kid."
Atkins scored eight of her points in the first 5:05 on Sunday when the Mystics raced to an 18-10 lead that swelled to a 13-point advantage after one quarter. She also made a 3-pointer with 4:09 to play that triggered a game-sealing 7-0 burst that gave Washington a 13-point lead.
"The Ariel Atkins contribution was huge today, from making her first three of the game to being aggressive," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "That looked like the Ariel from last year in the playoffs, and that offensive rebound she got late in the game was a huge saver for us. It gave us the last piece of momentum that we needed."
Delle Donne had a productive line of 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. She also had two critical baskets in the fourth quarter that twice pushed Washington's lead back to six points. Meesseman had 11 points off the bench as the Mystics shot 54 percent and hit 10 of 21 from beyond the arc.
The silver lining for the Sun was they played the Mystics slightly better than even the final three quarters after digging that 13-point hole. Courtney Williams went 6 of 9 from deep and finished with 26 points while Alyssa Thomas added 20 for Connecticut, which did shoot 61 percent in the first half and showed it can run with Washington.
"We can make shots," Sun coach Curt Miller said. "We can make people - we can execute offensively, and that's going to be the challenge for both of us all series, can we string consecutive stops together. Our transition is so important to us, and we've got to be able to get defensive stops or turn them over so we can get in transition."
Another challenge for Miller and the Sun is getting center Jonquel Jones more shots. Jones may have been too deferential to get everyone involved Sunday as she finished with 12 points while taking just eight shots. The perimeter shooting outside of Williams also needs to improve as her teammates were a combined 3 of 14 from beyond the arc.
"I think we ran some things and she was unselfish and we got touches for her and she played out of it," Miller said regarding Jones. "At other times their switching sped us up, and we didn't always get the ball to her when I felt like we could.
"But we need those shots up. They want Jasmine Thomas taking a lot of shots, and they got some of that accomplished tonight, so we've just got to continue to get the ball to where we want to play through."
The series will shift to Connecticut for Game 3 on Sunday.