Elena Delle Donne’s back and the way forward for the Washington Mystics

A setback, but not the end of the world

WASHINGTON — When Elena Delle Donne checked out of Game 2 of the WNBA Finals in the first quarter, many observers didn’t notice anything amiss. Even some of her Washington Mystics teammates didn’t notice right away that the 2019 WNBA MVP had bypassed the bench and gone straight to the locker room after just 3:28 of game action.

ESPN’s Holly Rowe eventually reported that Delle Donne was suffering from back spasms, which had also caused her to miss much of practice the day before. She did not return to the bench, let alone the game, and the Connecticut Sun took advantage to tie the Finals at one game apiece. On Wednesday, Delle Donne was diagnosed with “a small disc herniation,” and her status for Sunday’s Game 3 is unknown.

This is not Delle Donne’s first brush with back problems: The Washington Post’s Ava Wallace reported that Delle Donne had her lower back wrapped in Game 3 of the Mystics’ semifinal series against Las Vegas, and her history of back issues dates to at least 2014, when they hampered her in the WNBA Finals as a member of the Chicago Sky. After Tuesday’s Game 2, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said Delle Donne had had “ongoing, late in the season, just tightness, and we’ve been able to treat it … But it’s the one nightmare I’ve had for the last month is seeing her lying on her back. I watched that in 2015 when she was in Chicago, and it wasn’t a good sight for them.”

When Delle Donne exited Game 2, the Mystics led 7-6. It would be their final lead of the game. The momentum rapidly shifted Connecticut’s way and the Mystics found themselves down 12 by the end of the first quarter. They trailed by as many as 14, then came all the way back to tie the score at 76, but ultimately lost 99-87.

To those who have followed the Mystics all year, the Game 2 loss may have felt similar to the season opener, a 15-point loss at Connecticut in which Delle Donne did not play. (She was still rehabbing the knee injury that limited her in last year’s Finals.) Or perhaps it reminded them of the game on July 7, a 17-point loss against Los Angeles. Delle Donne played the first minute before exiting with a broken nose, and the Mystics were outscored by 12 in the third quarter. Three days later, still without Delle Donne, Washington got pummeled by Phoenix 91-68. In all, Delle Donne effectively missed four regular-season games, and three were blowouts—the exception being a four-point home loss on July 14.

Incredibly, once the Mystics got Delle Donne back, they did not lose another home game until Game 2 of the WNBA Finals—a 79-day span. Tuesday’s loss clearly exposed some flaws, namely their defense and rebounding. But, counterintuitively, it also provided a blueprint for how the Mystics can still succeed if Delle Donne is ruled out or is noticeably hampered for the rest of the series.

What has to change: rebounding and defense

In his postgame press conference, Thibault called rebounding “the first place” that needed fixing, and for good reason: the Mystics were outrebounded by 14 in Game 2 and gave up 15 offensive rebounds to Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas alone. (Incredibly, the duo finished with 30 of Connecticut’s 41 total rebounds.) In Game 1, with Delle Donne playing 36 minutes and collecting 10 rebounds, the Mystics outrebounded Connecticut by 1 and held Jones and Thomas to a combined 12 rebounds, just 3 of which were on the offensive end. For Game 3, Thibault preached the importance of fundamentals, including boxing out, and several Mystics players emphasized that the whole team, not just the forwards, would need to rebound better.

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 01: Jonquel Jones #35 of the Connecticut Sun goes to the basket against Elena Delle Donne #11 of the Washington Mystics during the first half of Game Two of the 2019 WNBA finals at St Elizabeths East Entertainment & Sports Arena on October 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

The Mystics’ other area of concern, defense, improved some after Thibault challenged the players at halftime, but it ultimately wasn’t good enough to complete the comeback. “We didn’t put a stamp on our defense to start the game,” wing Aerial Powers said. The Sun shot 57% from the field in the first quarter and 50% for the game, including 42% from 3-point range. In the fourth quarter, the Sun hit four of six 3-point attempts, including two by Jones.

After the game, Powers was candid about her team’s struggles: “Our one-on-one defense has to be better. We have to make them feel us when they shoot. I feel like a lot of their shots were … too comfortable, honestly.” The ESPN broadcast caught Sun guard Courtney Williams saying, “That girl can’t guard me” after she hit a few shots, and it wasn’t just braggadocio. Williams had 22 points in Game 2, four fewer than she had in Game 1. The Mystics will need their two WNBA All-Defensive guards, Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins, to put the clamps on Williams in Game 3.

What must not change: Washington’s bench contributions

Amid Delle Donne’s injury and Washington’s struggles to rebound and defend, a record-breaking performance has not gotten much attention. The Mystics’ bench scored 52 points, the most in WNBA playoff history. Forward Emma Meesseman led the way with 23 points, and forward Tianna Hawkins (16), Powers (11), and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (2) all made important contributions. Meesseman, Hawkins, and Powers combined to shoot 63% from the field (19-for-30) and added 17 of Washington’s 27 rebounds. Walker-Kimbrough (+3) and Powers (+3) were the only Mystics besides Delle Donne (+1) to have a positive plus-minus rating, which means that the Mystics outscored the Sun in their time on the court. In his postgame press conference, Connecticut head coach Curt Miller called Washington’s bench production “incredible.”

The Mystics bench was similarly productive throughout the regular season, averaging over 30 points per game and outscoring opponents’ reserves in 26 of 34 games. “We have the best bench in the league,” guard Kristi Toliver said after the game. However, in Game 2, Toliver was the only starter in double figures, and she needed 20 shots to score her 13 points. The other four starters combined for just 22 points—one fewer than Meesseman scored by herself.

Hawkins sank 3 of her 4 3-point attempts, but the candidate for WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year deflected praise. “I gotta credit my teammates,” she said in the locker room afterward. “They were able to find me in open spots on the floor.” When Powers, the Mystics’ other Sixth Woman of the Year candidate, was asked where she gets her infectious energy from, she said, “I always go back to where I started, from Detroit, Michigan. We just had it in our blood … so that energy just comes from, that’s how I am as a person.”

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 1: Emma Meesseman #33 of the Washington Mystics handles the ball during the game against the Connecticut Sun during Game Two of the 2019 WNBA Finals on October 1, 2019 at the St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

If Delle Donne is unable to play in Game 3, Meesseman will likely start in her place, and the remaining bench players will again need to rise to the challenge. The Mystics players, starters and reserves alike, are confident in their bench. “We know we’re versatile,” Meesseman said after Game 2. “We know every single player can step up. So we just have to keep playing like that and keep moving.” Toliver added that the bench production is “to me the difference between our team last year and this year. … the energy they bring and the shots they make, we need that. We’re going to continue to need that in this series.”

The Mystics expect to provide an update on Delle Donne’s status on Saturday, after several days of treatment. Either way, the players are still laser-focused on winning a championship. “Elena being out cannot be an excuse for us,” Meesseman said after Game 2. “Everybody can play on this team, so we’re going to have to figure it out.” Powers added, “We knew when [Elena] went down, we all had to step up, but we fell short today. Hopefully we have her for Game 3, and if we don’t, we’ll play better and defend better.”

Game 2 showed how dangerous the Mystics can be when their bench provides a spark, even with injuries and a subpar defensive showing. The hope for Game 3 is that the whole team can take inspiration from the bench’s effort in Game 2, shore up what went wrong—and maybe, just maybe, get more than 3 minutes and 28 seconds of Elena Delle Donne.

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