WASHINGTON — While the Washington Mystics tried adjusting without injured All-Star Elena Delle Donne, the Atlanta Dream benefitted from lessons learned after losing their best player weeks ago.
Tiffany Hayes had 23 points and 11 rebounds and the Dream beat the Mystics 81-76 on Friday night to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five WNBA semifinal series.
Brittney Sykes scored 17 points, and Elizabeth Williams had 14 for the Dream. Atlanta is one victory away from the franchise's fourth finals appearance and first since 2013.
The lead changed 14 times through three quarters but never in the fourth. Sykes's third 3-pointer of the game gave the Dream their largest lead at 77-66 with 2:38 left. Washington scored the next six points and trailed 79-74 with 35.7 seconds remaining, but would get no closer.
"This team knows how to win games late," Dream coach Nicki Collen said. "We guard people and we have players that can make plays. We get into tight situations, there's rarely much panic with this group."
Playing without Delle Donne, who suffered a bone bruise on her left knee in the closing minutes of Tuesday's 78-75 Game 2 loss at Atlanta, didn't unnerve the Mystics. It did force several lineup changes including a four-guard look as Washington searched for winning combinations.
The Dream already went through this adjustment as Delle Donne's absence meant both teams played without its best player. Atlanta closed out the regular season sans All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry, who suffered a knee injury Aug. 7 against Las Vegas.
"It's kind of how the Mystics were today. When somebody goes down you just play a little bit harder and play for each other," Williams said. "We've been fortunate to have the extra time to get used to playing without Angel."
Delle Donne averaged 29.5 points and 13.5 rebounds in the first two games of the series. Washington's offense labored without its leading scorer and rebounder. The Mystics shot 36 percent from the field and 5 of 23 on 3-point attempts.
"I thought we put up a great fight," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "I don't think we played great offensively at all."
Kristi Toliver, who joined Delle Donne in the 2018 All-Star game, had seven points on 3 of 15 shooting and missed eight of nine 3-point attempts. Her backcourt partner, Natasha Cloud scored three points.
Aerial Powers came off the bench to lead Washington with a season-high 18 points.
Atlanta entered the final period leading 56-54 and extended the lead to 66-58 on Sykes's 3-pointer with 7:15 remaining.
With Delle Donne out and the Mystics in experimental mode, Powers played extended minutes at power forward for the first time this season.
"We couldn't completely change our offense because we didn't know if (Elena' was going to play until today," said center LaToya Sanders, who had 12 points and six blocked shots. "We did what we could this morning. We kind of just played on the fly today. It worked in some moments, but you could see how new it was for us in certain moments especially on the defensive end."
Ariel Atkins scored 17 points for Washington. . Atlanta led 37-34 at halftime and extended the lead to 48-38 in the third quarter before Washington rallied with a 12-1 run. ... Delle Donne dressed for the game and sat on the bench. She did not walk with a discernible limp, but was deliberate with her gait going to and from the locker room.
Game 4 is set for Sunday in Washington. Tip time remains unsettled depending on the outcome of Friday's Game 3 in the other semifinal series between Seattle and Phoenix. The No. 1 seed Storm entered the weekend with a 2-0 lead.