The WNBA semifinals continue Friday night as the Washington Mystics host the Atlanta Dream (8 ET) and the Phoenix Mercury host the Seattle Storm (10 ET). Both games are on ESPNews.
Washington is looking to hold court after Atlanta evened the series 1-1 on Tuesday. Mystics star Elena Delle Donne, who suffered a left knee injury in the fourth quarter, is listed as questionable with a bone bruise for Game 3. Still, that's good news, considering Delle Donne's knee buckled backward after she slipped on a drive to the basket and the injury looked serious as she collapsed to the court clutching her knee.
The Mystics led by two points at the time, but lost 78-75 in Atlanta. Washington failed to hit a field goal in the final two minutes.
In Seattle, the Storm squandered a 19-point lead and were forced to go to overtime after Diana Taurasi tied the score on a 3-pointer with 3.6 seconds left in regulation. The Mercury took an early four-point lead in the extra period, but Seattle rallied behind six points from Jewell Loyd in overtime and four points from Sue Bird in the final 1:03. The Storm won Games 1 and 2 by a 91-87 score.
So what will be the keys in Game 3?
Atlanta at Washington: Who will step up for Mystics?
The good news for the Mystics is that the door is at least still open for Delle Donne to play in the series. But that doesn't mean she will. Even if she does, we can't be sure how effective she will be. No matter what, Washington is going to need someone else to have a huge game Friday.
That's on both ends of the court. In the Mystics' three playoff games so far, including their second-round win over Los Angeles, Delle Donne has averaged 26.0 points and 13.0 rebounds.
Yet even with Delle Donne playing in most of Tuesday's loss, the Mystics were outrebounded 44-26. The Dream have a size advantage, particularly when 6-foot-7 Imani McGee Stafford is in the game. She didn't play in the series opener, an 87-84 Mystics win, but was effective in her 8 minutes Tuesday, getting four points and three rebounds. Rookie Monique Billings, at 6-foot-4, also gives the Dream good size off the bench.
"I knew Imani was champing at the bit to give us some minutes," Dream coach Nicki Collen said. "She gave us good minutes. We just wanted to give [the Mystics] a different look in short spurts."
Atlanta starting post players Elizabeth Williams and Jessica Breland combined for 25 rebounds Tuesday, with Breland also blocking seven shots. And they've both been effective offensively, too, combining for 21 points in Game 1 and 20 points in Game 2.
Guards Alex Bentley, who has averaged 20.5 points in Atlanta's two playoff games, and Tiffany Hayes (17.0) lead the Dream in scoring. Point guard Renee Montgomery (7.0 PPG, 2.5 APG in the playoffs) and guard Brittney Sykes (9.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG) also have been steady for Atlanta.
How do the Mystics counter all of that, especially if they don't have Delle Donne? They'll have to keep hitting 3-pointers: They made 11 in the series opener and six in the second game. Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud scored in double figures Sunday, and Kristi Toliver did Tuesday. Washington might need all three of them doing that Friday.
Center LaToya Sanders, who has scored eight and 11 points in the two games, has her hands full with the Dream's size, but she's used to combating that. If the Mystics can get an offensive lift off the bench from forward Tianna Hawkins and forward/guard Aerial Powers, that would help, too.
"When the teams know each other so well, and it's kind of a slug-it-out defensive thing," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said, "you've got to get a break here or there."
Washington got a bad break with Delle Donne getting hurt. If she can return in any capacity during the series, it will be a lift for the Mystics. But her injury and the Dream pulling out the Game 2 victory turned the momentum in Atlanta's favor. The Dream will have to see what they can do with that now on the road. -- espnW's Mechelle Voepel
Seattle at Phoenix: Mercury can't wait until fourth quarter
The Mercury headed home down 2-0 and need a win Friday to extend their semifinal series against the Storm, but they can take confidence in a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks that fell short of securing the road victory they'll need to advance.
While Seattle has dominated the first three quarters of the series thus far, outscoring the Mercury 146-118 in that span, the final period has been a different story. The Storm have shot a combined 10-of-36 (28 percent) in the two fourth quarters, giving Phoenix a decisive 48-24 edge in those periods.
Now the Mercury must reach that same level of urgency earlier in the game.
"We started off well and then it kind of all went downhill from there," Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello said after Tuesday's Game 2. "We just kept breaking down. With the speed, we're our own worst enemy at times with the turnovers -- silly turnovers that lead to easy baskets."
When the Mercury can avoid allowing Seattle transition opportunities off of turnovers and missed shots, Phoenix has had the advantage in the half-court game. There, Brittney Griner's size around the basket becomes a bigger factor and the Storm has tended to grind down and rely on isolation basketball late in the shot clock -- something Bird attributed to relaxing with a big lead.
"I think both games, when Phoenix has made those little runs at us, we've just relaxed a little bit," Bird explained. "Part of what we do well offensively is move. We share the ball, we move, we're constantly cutting. We have five threats at all times. That's where our strength lies. I think when we relax, we end up standing. And when we stand, it's much harder for us to execute what we want to do and it's harder to get the shots we want."
Another element in the Mercury's comeback Tuesday was the play of veteran forward Camille Little, a starter for Seattle the last time the Storm won the championship in 2010. Little, who lost her starting job when Phoenix downsized late in the season to put DeWanna Bonner at power forward, had played just two minutes in the postseason before Brondello turned to her in the fourth quarter out of desperation. Little responded with tight defense on MVP Breanna Stewart and crunching screens that helped free up Taurasi for her flurry of late 3-pointers.
"She is a physical, tough defender," said Stewart. "I knew from previous games she was going to be physical with me for the entire time, and she was, and she made it difficult. It's something that I have to be ready for in Game 3." -- ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton