UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Elena Delle Donne looked out into the crowded room full of reporters and photographers and distractedly made her way up the three steps to the podium.
With all eyes on her, she stumbled and tripped up the stairs. The Washington Mystics star caught herself quickly, but she couldn’t help but snicker.
“Well, that’s pretty much how my life is going right now,” Delle Donne said to no one in particular as she shook her head and sighed.
She then sat down for the first time all afternoon. Her body looked far more rigid than its 30 years as she slowly lowered herself into her chair. The pain was evident on her face, even if she tried to mask it with a smile. Despite her obvious discomfort, there was in fact a lot to smile about, as she had helped lead the Mystics to a 94-81 win over the Connecticut Sun on the road to take a 2-1 edge in the WNBA Finals.
It has been a long few days for the league’s MVP. She began experiencing back spasms just minutes into Tuesday’s Game 2, and an MRI on Wednesday revealed a herniated disk that’s pinching a nerve. Delle Donne’s status for Sunday’s matchup was very much in doubt until shortly before tipoff. Instead of practicing with her teammates this week, she has been almost exclusively in the training room in hopes of returning to the court for the rest of the series.
“Basically [I’ve been] doing anything possible to get back out there,” Delle Donne said after Sunday’s game. “We have a really great medical staff, phenomenal doctors, great trainers. So they’ve been working on me for five days straight. I was glad to have a little bit of a break to get it to calm down a little bit, just trying to find ways to stay comfortable and stay loose.
“And we really didn’t know if I was going to be able to go today because I hadn’t done anything until right up before the game. And we were able to kind of test it a little bit and go from there.”
As Delle Donne took the court to start the game, she looked something like a bionic woman. Her face was covered in a mask to protect her nose, her left knee was wrapped in a brace, and there was the bulkiness of a back support visible through the midsection of her jersey — each a souvenir from her physical journey through a sometimes relentless sport.
But if her superhero-esque look weren’t attention-grabbing enough, it didn’t take her long to remind the sellout crowd of her presence. Delle Donne nailed a 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game.
With 5:13 to play in the first quarter, coach Mike Thibault subbed her out in place of Tianna Hawkins, and Delle Donne ran up an arena tunnel and out of sight. The Mystics spokesperson quickly revealed this was “part of the plan.” Whenever she was not on the court Sunday, Delle Donne would be in a corridor riding a stationary bike or walking, Thibault later explained.
“The plan was let’s see how it goes, sub for her every four-to-five minutes to try to get her a breather,” he said. “Because I didn’t think her wind was going to be there, [so] get her back on the bike or walk in the back hallway while she got her breath back.”
Delle Donne did many things over the course of Sunday afternoon, but she never sat. She played 26 minutes overall but never took a seat on the bench. Even when she stayed in the arena after being subbed out, she stood behind the team bench. She leaned over with her arms outstretched, she put her hands on her knees, she even rocked back and forth between her right and left leg during timeouts. But she never sat and was rarely still.
Delle Donne left the game for the final time with 2:10 to play, and the Mystics had a comfortable 14-point lead, but again, she remained on her feet. She knew she would instantly tighten up if she stopped moving.
“Sitting is my worst enemy,” she said later. “I haven’t sat much these past couple of days. When I do, I get really stiff, and it’s hard to get up from it. So I’ve been doing a lot of standing, a lot of core work, a lot of glute work. But, yes, sitting has been really bad for me.”
During her limited minutes — Delle Donne managed 26 on Sunday; she played at least 31 minutes in each of Washington’s first five playoff games — Delle Donne was significantly less of a presence in the paint than normal, and she was not the dominant force against the glass that teammates and opponents have come to expect. She scored 13 points, including three 3-pointers, and had six boards.
It wasn’t the 19.5 PPG and 8.3 RPG she averaged during the regular season, but Delle Donne was intentionally hesitant to get overly physical, and she drove the lane sparingly. But she made her final shot a crucial one: With just over three minutes to play and the Sun on a 6-0 run, she knew what she had to do, no matter the physical repercussions.
“It was kind of one of the moments, like, ‘Hey, I might give my back up and my body up on this one,’ but I feel like it was such a big moment to stop that run they’re making,” she said. “And I knew I’ve got a phenomenal team. They’ve carried me this whole series, and they’re going to carry me the rest of the way.
“So I just saw I might have a lane because I hadn’t driven or done anything really, so I just tried to attack.”
The driving layup gave the Mystics a 12-point lead, and it all but silenced the once-rowdy crowd and cemented the victory for Washington. When Delle Donne left the game soon after, she had done everything her team had needed her to do to move just one win away from its first WNBA title.
“Her presence alone, whether she’s 100 percent or 10 percent, just instills confidence in the rest of the group,” said teammate Kristi Toliver, who scored 20 points and was one of three other Mystics to score in double figures. “And she showed a lot of character and showed a lot of heart just being out on the floor today because she’s obviously not feeling great. I mean, she tripped on the way up here.
“So, yeah, she’s not in great shape, but it means the world to us and the rest of the team for her to be out there today.”
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