It was far from her best game, but it might have been Elena Delle Donne’s finest hour as a basketball player.
Delle Donne has led the Washington Mystics to their first-ever WNBA championship series, where they’ll take on the Seattle Storm in a best-of-five set beginning on Friday night. And looking at the box score from Tuesday night’s 86-81, series-clinching victory over the Atlanta Dream in the Eastern Conference finals, it was a very pedestrian game for Delle Donne – she scored just 14 points after averaging almost 25 points per game in the playoffs.
Certainly, Delle Donne has had bigger scoring games throughout her career, including a 50-point performance against St. Elizabeth when she carried Ursuline Academy to the Delaware high school championship.
Then she was player of the year in the Colonial Athletic Association when she led Delaware to national prominence for the first and probably last time in its history. Then she became the rookie of the year and most valuable player in the WNBA and also helped the United States win the gold medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Compared to all of that, a 14-point game doesn’t seem like much, especially since she made just five of 13 shots from the field.
But it was Delle Donne’s presence on the court that mattered the most, and that was the primary reason the Mystics have advanced to the Finals for the first time in their 21-year history.
Delle Donne injured her left knee in Game 2 of the series against the Dream, and watching that game and seeing how she got injured – her knee bent backward at awkward angle and she immediately fell to the floor in immense pain – I didn’t think there was any chance the former Blue Hens star would play again this year.
And Delle Donne did miss one game, which her team lost 81-76. But an MRI revealed that she just had a bone bruise, and even though that can be very painful and she had to deal with some swelling, Delle Donne was able to play in Game 4, and the fact that the Mystics won by 21 points is not a coincidence.
Delle Donne scored 15 points and had 10 rebounds in that game, which is a good night for most players, but just a half’s worth of work for one of the best players in the world.
Then came Tuesday night’s deciding Game 5, played on the road in Atlanta. Once again, Delle Donne had a sub-par night as far as scoring – she finished with 14 points – but her biggest stat wasn’t points or rebounds, but minutes played – Delle Donne was on the floor for 37 of a possible 40 minutes, and that was the difference. The injury has obviously affected her game, especially on offense, but the other Mystics players just feel better seeing No. 11 out on the floor with them as she plays through the pain.
“It’s amazing that she’s even playing right now,” teammate Kristi Tolliver told reporters after the game.
And even though she didn’t score like she normally does, Delle Donne contributed in other ways, including a game-high 11 rebounds. But she was also clutch in the, well, clutch. In the final minutes of Tuesday night’s victory over Atlanta, she came up with some critical plays, including a steal, a blocked shot and an offensive rebound. All of those plays either led to Mystic points or took away Dream points. And, of course, Delle Donne shined at the free throw line, making four straight foul shots down the stretch – she’s now 23-for-23 in the playoffs.
But, more than anything, it was seeing No. 11 on the court that lifted the Mystics and affected the Dream.
“Whether [Delle Donne] is on crutches, it doesn’t matter,” Tolliver said. “If she’s on the floor, they have to respect her and honor her. That changes everything for everybody. … Her presence means everything.”