WASHINGTON — By the time Washington Mystics All-Star Elena Delle Donne descended the steps into Smith Center, ready for the last round of treatment and tests on her ailing left knee, she had her mind set on playing. A bone bruise had held her out of the Mystics’ previous game, a loss Friday night to the Atlanta Dream that put Washington on the verge of elimination in the WNBA semifinals.
However, on Sunday morning, as Delle Donne entered the team’s temporary home for the playoffs and passed Mike Thibault, exchanging a knowing glance that the Mystics’ coach and general manager translated as good news, her presence began to provide Washington with swagger and a sense of belief.
In Game 4 on Sunday afternoon, the Mystics controlled the paint and cooked from long range during a 97-76 win over the Dream. With the victory, Washington pulled even at two games apiece and extended the series to a winner-take-all Game 5 in Atlanta on Tuesday night.
“Obviously, it’s a nice present to see her in uniform ready to go,” Thibault said of Delle Donne. “She just gives everybody else around her confidence that we kind of got this, that we have the best player in the game on the court. And that helps a lot mentally.”
As former Maryland guard Natasha Cloud put it: “That’s our leader on the court. That’s our MVP. That’s my MVP.”
Delle Donne scored 15 points (6-for-15 shooting, including 3-for-5 from 3-point range) and snatched 10 rebounds. Though Delle Donne wasn’t Washington’s leading scorer — that honor belonged to guard Kristi Toliver (Maryland), who snapped out of a cold stretch on her shot with 22 points — she finished as a game-high plus-24 during her 33:42 on the floor.
She would have launched dagger stares at Thibault had she played a minute less. Recognizing the gravity of the moment, Delle Donne didn’t hold back.
“I would’ve killed Coach if he didn’t let me play full out,” the sixth-year forward said as Thibault chuckled from across the room. “He knows. I gave him the look, and he knew that I was fully ready to go and wanted to be in there as much as I possibly could.”
Delle Donne gave a shout-out to the Mystics’ training staff for getting her ready Sunday and, rightfully, credited her teammates for building a 14-point lead in the first half.
Rookie forward Ariel Atkins competed despite foul trouble and finished with 19 points. Also, the Mystics’ backcourt helped by breaking out of its slumber. Toliver, who had misfired on 17 of her 21 3-point tries during the series, hit four Sunday and connected on eight of 16 shots overall, while Cloud recovered from her 33.3 percent shooting in the previous three games by making five of 10 shots and scoring 13 points.
Tiffany Hayes, Renee Montgomery, Brittney Sykes and Jessica Breland each scored 12 points for the Dream.
Behind a flurry of fast-break finishes from Toliver and Cloud, the Mystics scored 36 points in the paint.
“My team carried me most of the way,” Delle Donne said, “and then luckily I was able to get a little bit going in the second half.”
Ahead of Sunday’s game, Delle Donne endured rehabilitation methods that included shock wave therapy and a visit to a hyperbaric chamber, as reported by ESPN’s LaChina Robinson during Sunday’s telecast. The only visible reminder of that hard work — and the bone bruise injury that preceded it — was a black brace strapped around her left leg.
Though Delle Donne played the first 12 minutes of the game, she missed her first three shot attempts, all taken from the perimeter. Later in the half, she found a bit of a rhythm. After running the floor and receiving a fast-break pass from Cloud, Delle Donne pulled up for a 10-foot jumper instead of going to the glass.
Still, her play was far from limited, and her presence filled the floor.
“Whether Delly’s on crutches, it doesn’t matter,” Toliver said. “If she’s on the floor, they have to respect her and honor her, and that just changes everything for everyone. So I’m happy that she was able to get going, especially in the second half. Feeling good, legs were under her. I’m just happy to have her back.”
While Delle Donne deflected shots and deterred Atlanta from the paint in the first half, her MVP-esque offensive skills were on display after halftime.
As the Mystics sizzled at the start of the third quarter, hitting shots on their six opening possessions, Delle Donne made her first 3-pointer. Then, during a 20-9 run by Washington that began at the 2:11 mark of the third quarter and continued into the final frame, she hit a few more jump shots. She didn’t take a seat in the second half until 3:38 remained in the game and Washington was ahead 90-68.
As she paced off the court for the final time, with a Mystics victory in hand and a wave of applause and screams following her every step, Delle Donne simply held out her hand to slap high-fives with teammates. During the postgame news conference, while describing her team’s ball sharing for 22 assists, Delle Donne quipped: “No one had to be Superwoman.”
But as Delle Donne turned to leave the dais, Toliver made a quick move to the microphone for the last word.
“But we got our Superwoman back,” Toliver said.