For years, WNBA fans have hoped to see a full-strength matchup between the Mystics and Storm in the playoffs, and this year they got that wish in the first round as both teams finished 22-14 on the season, earning the 4- and 5-seeds in the postseason.
The best-of-3 series got underway on Thursday night in Seattle and delivered an instant classic, as both teams put forth their A-game, including some brilliance from the marquee names, sensational defensive efforts, and both teams making big runs as they battled back and forth in what became an 86-83 Storm win to hold onto homecourt and move one game away from the second round.
In her first game back in the playoffs in three years, the former two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne went to work early, scoring the opening bucket of the game and asserting her presence back without a minutes restriction after navigating the regular season with load management for her back issues.
On the other side, it was Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart who got things going for the Storm, as the stars went to work early in the paint.
In the second quarter the Mystics took brief control, as Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud gave them a lift from the backcourt, each scoring 16 points on the night.
Seattle would fight to keep things close, cutting the deficit to just two going into the half, and in the third quarter, the Storm started to find success with Breanna Stewart both as the scorer and as the initiator, as she started letting it fly from deep and dealing out assists from the middle of the floor.
The Mystics answered the Storm run by turning to Delle Donne, who at one point scored nine straight for Washington to push them back in front by one going into the fourth.
In the fourth, it looked for a moment like Washington might pull away, as Delle Donne continued to find space to score inside as their actions scrambled the Storm defense early in the period.
However, Seattle would settle down defensively and start to fight their way back into the game, clawing back to being down just one with two minutes to go, with some help on the way from Jewell Loyd who finally found the bottom of the net from three after a quiet night otherwise.
As was the case all night, Delle Donne had an answer to keep the Mystics in front, as she put forth an incredible performance, creating tough bucket after tough bucket.
The Storm kept hanging around as Loyd picked up her scoring, finding the range with 14 second half points after just two in the first half, including the go-ahead basket on a tough pull-up late in the clock.
Washington would have the chance to take the lead back, but after a hard double forced Delle Donne to kick it back out to the perimeter, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins weren’t on the same page, resulting in a turnover to give the ball back to the Storm. Loyd would get the ball and get fouled, going to the free throw line for two makes that put Seattle up three with just over 24 seconds to play. A Delle Donne contested three would go begging off the backboard, with Stewart hauling in the rebound and getting fouled, making her free throws to ice the game with 14 seconds to play.
Delle Donne finished with a game-high 26 points in the loss, putting forth an incredible shot-making display but one that fell just short of the depth of the Storm. While Atkins and Cloud gave Washington a great boost early, the Mystics struggled in the closing minutes to create offense anytime Seattle was able to get set and send help at Delle Donne. On the other side, when Stewart, who led the way with 23 points and 12 rebounds, started to slow down late in the fourth the Storm were able to turn to Loyd (16 points), who turned it on as the lead scorer to push Seattle over the finish line.
Game 2 on Sunday figures to be a must-watch, as it now becomes a must-win for the Mystics if they want to force a winner-take-all Game 3 in Washington, while the Storm will be intent on putting a bow on the series in their home arena.