Delle Donne, defense lead Mystics to Game 1 road win over Dream

ATLANTA -- Elena Delle Donne did what she does: Pour in points, grab rebounds and generally wear out the opposition. At 6-foot-5, she can be practically unstoppable.

But the third-seeded Mystics' 87-84 victory over the No. 2 Dream in Game 1 of their WNBA semifinal series on Sunday was not just a Delle Donne tour de force.

Yes, she had 32 points and 13 rebounds. But perimeter defense, led by guards Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins, was the other huge factor for Washington. When the Mystics had to have stops -- including in the game's final sequence -- those two led the way in getting them.

On the final possession, the Dream hoped to get a 3-point look for guard Alex Bentley, who led Atlanta with 19 points. But Atkins stayed close to her and forced her to pass. Post player Jessica Breland, who hadn't taken a 3-pointer this season and has just 24 attempts in her WNBA career, had to launch it from behind the arc, and missed.

The game had seemed in hand, with Washington leading by nine with just less than 2 minutes left. But the Dream can -- and did -- strike fast, and it was up to the Mystics to hold on.

"I think our team did a really good job of looking each other in the eye like, 'We need to get stops right now,'" the rookie Atkins said. "We buckled down on defense, and it's something that we've grown to be able to do this season."

Cloud said of Atkins, "Who you see is who she is. I can't speak highly enough about her. She wants to reach her full potential."

Atkins (15 points) and Cloud (13) joined Delle Donne in double-figure scoring, along with post player Tianna Hawkins, who had 11 off the bench.

"We play very high energy, as Atlanta does too," said Cloud, who also had five rebounds, six assists and no turnovers. "We knew we had to give everything we had today. That's just our mindset as a team.

"They can score so quickly, they can just turn it on at any point. So you can't let up."

Atkins and Cloud each had three of Washington's 11 3-pointers. Coach Mike Thibault took Texas' Atkins with the No. 7 pick in April's draft, which surprised some people who thought she might go a little lower.

In 2015, he selected Cloud from St. Joseph's in the second round with the No. 15 pick overall. Thibault said he had been prepared to use the Mystics' first-round pick that year (No. 8) on Cloud. But he felt pretty certain she was far enough under the radar that he instead went with post player Ally Malott of Dayton.

Malott played two seasons with the Mystics, but she is no longer in the WNBA. Cloud, on the other hand, is having the best season of her four-year WNBA career. She averaged 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds during the regular season. Delle Donne talks about how the Mystics just aren't the same team, especially on defense, when Cloud is not on the floor.

Cloud missed three games from May 29 to June 1 with illness, and three more from July 19-24 with a concussion. The last of those was a 94-68 thumping by Connecticut, which sent the Mystics into the All-Star break at 14-11 with some concerns.

Cloud came back after that, and little has slowed down the Mystics since. They went 8-1 to end the regular season. The only loss, 88-83, came in the finale at Minnesota, where the Mystics rested their starters much of the second half because the outcome had no bearing on the playoffs.

Now the Mystics have won their first two playoff games, having crushed the Sparks 96-64 in the second round Thursday in Washington. And they held off the hard-charging Dream here at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion on Sunday.

Part of that, though, was keeping Dream star Tiffany Hayes in check for a lot of the game. She still got hot at the end and finished with 17 points, which came on 6 of 15 shooting. Center Elizabeth Williams had 15 points and 14 rebounds for Atlanta.

"Usually, I get in there and finish at the rim better, but today they weren't falling," Hayes said. "My teammates stepped up real nice; they kept us in the game. In the fourth quarter, everything started falling, finally, for me. Next time, I have to start faster, and we can't give them as many 3s, because that was the biggest difference in the game."

The Mystics were 11-of-26 from behind the arc and 20-of-20 from the free throw line, led by Delle Donne's 10-of-10 at the stripe.

Dream coach Nicki Collen said she told her team not to be discouraged by the loss. And, of course, Thibault knows this is just one step for the Mystics.

Still, it was a big step on the road for a team that has been standing up to pretty much every challenge for the last month.

"We made it interesting at the end," Thibault said. "You have the feeling that the series could look like this the whole way.

"You have two highly intense defensive teams; the scoring was big early, but then it turned into a defensive battle down the stretch. We're going to need to shoot the ball better going forward, and give them credit for working their way back into the game."