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Mystics squeak by Aces in last-second thriller to earn Game 1 victory

Mystics squeak by Aces in last-second thriller to earn Game 1 victory

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Mystics beat the Las Vegas Aces 97-95 in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals on Tuesday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. The Mystics took Step 1 towards what they hope is the first championship in franchise history on Tuesday night, as they held off an Aces team with the size and athleticism to put up a real fight. But Washington's outside shooting and ability to limit mistakes proved too much in the first of a five-game series. 

The Mystics made 11 threes compared to the Aces' seven and committed only four turnovers while Las Vegas coughed up 13 of them. Emma Meesseman led the way with 27 points and 10 rebounds, shooting a crisp 12-for-18 from the field. Elena Delle Donne was next with 24 points, six boards and six assists. Natasha Cloud (12 points) was the only other Mystic in double-figures. 

Delle Donne made the game-sealing shot, a turnaround fadeaway with 32 seconds to go. That put the Mystics up by four and the Aces couldn't close the gap.

2. Despite having a nine-day layoff between games, it was the Mystics who came out sharp. They made six of their first 10 shots and led 21-10 with just over three minutes to go in the first quarter.

The Aces had played just two days before, yet they took several minutes to get adjusted. The Mystics' quickness gave them trouble, especially on defense where they caught Aces center Liz Cambage (19 points, 12 rebounds) sleeping on a pair of turnovers in the post.

It didn't last long, however. The Aces sped up and got going on the fastbreak. By the end of the first quarter, they were within three points. Though they attempted 13 fewer shots in the first than the Mystics did, they made 73.3 percent of their looks.

3. Speed was the key in Las Vegas' best stretches. In the second quarter, they pushed the pace to outscore Washington 30-20. Kelsey Plum (16 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), the 2018 first overall pick, lit the spark. She made the Mystics pay for not getting back on defense by creating quick opportunities off made baskets. 

The Aces were able to turn up the speed when they went small in the second quarter, with the 6-foot-8 Cambage on the bench. A'ja Wilson went to work, scoring eight of her 23 points in the second quarter.

4. Hurting the Mystics in the speed department was the knee injury to All-Star guard Kristi Tolliver. She played for the first time since Aug. 8 and had some rust to shake off. 

She wasn't limping, but didn't have her usual quickness. And it seemed like her insertion into the lineup affected the Mystics' rhythm early on, as they hadn't played with her in six weeks. They went 10-1 while she was out, making it a delicate task to bring her back and not disrupt a smooth operation.

From the looks of Tolliver on Tuesday night, it seems like she could be dealing with the injury throughout the playoffs. To remain effective, she will have to lean on her accurate outside shooting and abilities as a distributor. 

By the fourth quarter, she did just that. Tolliver got a pair of threes to fall and finished with eight points and four assists in 23 minutes.

5. The Mystics had a lot of support in Game 1. It was a big, energetic crowd that featured a host of their Wizards counterparts. John Wall, Rui Hachimura, Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith, Thomas Bryant and Justin Robinson were among the players in attendance. General manager Tommy Sheppard was there along with executives Sashi Brown and John Thompson III. 

Ted Leonsis wants to see more synergy between his teams under the Monumental Basketball umbrella. Tuesday night was a good example.

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Rui Hachimura has to set better screens, will have big challenge in Joel Embiid

Rui Hachimura has to set better screens, will have big challenge in Joel Embiid

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday's practice for the Washington Wizards had to be adjusted due to a slew of injuries in their frontcourt. Without enough centers to run a full 5-on-5 scrimmage, head coach Scott Brooks led a walkthrough of plays, highlighting key areas he would like them to focus on as they prepare to go with smaller lineups out of necessity.

One key focus was screen-setting. Without Thomas Bryant for at least the next three weeks, the Wizards have to make up for his absence, as he currently ranks sixth in the NBA in screen assists per game. The Wizards fall in the middle of the league in ball screens and off-screens, but Bryant sets the majority of them.

At the moment, they are also missing Moe Wagner (ankle) and Ian Mahinmi (Achilles), so all three of their natural centers are hurt. That means rookie Rui Hachimura has to fill the void, as he did on Tuesday in the Wizards' loss to the Magic.

And that means Hachimura, though he's undersized for the five-spot at 6-foot-8, is going to have to set some screens.

"If he's the five, he has to hold the screens and be a screen scorer," Brooks said. "He's going to be able to learn that. I think he's going to pick it up tomorrow. I think today he saw it and our coaches are going to show him some film on it and I think you're going to see some improvement there." 

Brooks added that Hachimura struggled setting screens against Orlando. As Brooks described it, Hachimura was slipping out of his picks too early because that's what he's used to as a forward.

Hachimura is third on the Wizards in screen assists behind Bryant and Wagner, but he says he hasn't been a primary screen-setter since high school. Now he has to help his teammates get free by putting a body on the biggest and quickets athletes in the world.

"I have to be physical offensively," he said.

For the Wizards, these big men injuries are coming at a bad time. On Thursday night, they will see the Philadelphia 76ers, who play an unusually big lineup. Hachimura will have to set screens on players who are larger than him. Even Philly's point guard, Ben Simmons, is 6-foot-10.

Hachimura will also have to deal with center Joel Embiid on defense. Embiid may be the best center in basketball and also the most physically imposing.

At 7-feet and 280 pounds, he is a force down low. He leads the NBA in post-ups per game (7.9) and has a knack for getting to the free throw line. He is fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts this season (8.3/g) and was second in the league last year (10.1/g).

Foul trouble is one way the Wizards' frontcourt situation could get even worse. It's something to keep in mind as Hachimura awaits arguably the toughest challenge of his career so far.

"As young players, you've gotta expect the unexpected. Nobody expected we would have these injuries at the five spot," Brooks said.

"He [eventually] has to guard them all. That's what is going to make him valuable to us long-term, so this is good experience."

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Joel Embiid's 76ers are the last team the injury-riddled Wizards need to see

Joel Embiid's 76ers are the last team the injury-riddled Wizards need to see

The timing for Thursday night's clash with the Sixers could not have been worse for the Wizards. 

Not only are they going up against one of the best and biggest teams in the NBA, but they're going to have to do it with a cascade of injuries to their frontcourt. 

Thomas Bryant is out for at least the next three weeks with a right foot injury, and while Moe Wagner and Ian Mahinmi were both upgraded to questionable for Thursday night, neither will be playing at 100 percent and it would be Mahinmi's first game since March 18. 

Scott Brooks will have to rely on Rui Hachimura to continue to give him minutes at center and play more small-ball lineups, which isn't exactly the best recipe for success against Philadelphia. 

Here's a look at some players to watch on the Sixers and what the Wizards can do to slow them down.

Joel Embiid

If Mahinmi gets activated for the first time this season, Embiid would be a big reason why. He's an overwhelming force in the low post and consistently gets opposing bigs in foul trouble with an assortment of timely pump fakes and flops. 

Few players can shut him down one-on-one, so it'd be wise for the Wizards to focus on sending double teams in the right spots to force him to make plays under duress. 

One of Embiid's weaknesses is his passing and decision making when doubled. Given the Sixers' lack of shooting from the outside, Washington may be able to get away with this strategy a few times in this game. 

This is much easier said than done, especially when you look at how the Wizards' defense was unable to keep Orlando, the 29th-ranked offense in the NBA, under 120 points in both meetings this year. 

Ben Simmons

The 15-6 Sixers are still bonafide title contenders, but it has almost everything to do with their defense. Ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency, Philly has unrivaled size down low and length on the perimeter. 

Simmons may be their most important defender with his ability to switch and defend practically every player on the floor and his activity defending ball handlers. 

Add that to his ability to grab a rebound and speed down the floor in transition, and you have a sizeable problem on your hands. The Wizards are the worst team in the NBA at defending in transition. 

On the flip side, Simmons is the main reason the Sixers' offense has underachieved this season. The fact that he is a non-threat from anywhere outside the paint allows teams to pack the paint and prevent dribble penetration. 

We noted how it'd be smart for the Wizards to send double teams at Embiid. When Simmons is on the floor it'll be easier for the Wizards to do that and not give up easy looks Again, easier said than done, especially for this Wizards defense. 

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