The fate of the WNBA Finals will likely rest on Elena Delle Donne's back.
No, that statement is not a joke on her ability to carry the Washington Mystics to the franchise's first WNBA title. Rather, on how she recovers after being diagnosed with a small disc herniation in her lower back after Game 2.
Throughout the season, Washington rewrote several records. They had the best offensive rating (113.2), the most wins by 20-plus points, and the most wins by 25-plus in WNBA history. In a single game they've made more 3-pointers than any other team has before. The offense shattered expectations on how the women's game can be played.
Now they face a nightmare as they are two games away from a championship against the Connecticut Sun. With the series tied 1-1, Delle Donne, the league's MVP, could be out for Game 3 and/or Games 4 and 5, however long the series goes. Her status is up in the air for the time being. Further status updates will be provided on Saturday, the day before Game 3.
The Mystics history without Delle Donne is abysmal. Since 2017, Washington is 6-11 when she does not play, and 0-3 this year. This does not even include two losses where she got injured in the opening minutes (July 7 vs. Los Angeles and Game 2 vs. the Sun).
But just because she could be out for the remainder of this series does not mean Washington's shot at a title goes away with her.
"We showed it earlier in the season when Kristi [Toliver] was out for over a month, and we’ll do it here again," Natasha Cloud said when discussing how deep the Mystics are without Delle Donne.
They were an impressive 11-1 without Toliver at the end of the season. While Toliver is no Delle Donne, she was a vitally huge component of the Mystics' offense. There are so many other weapons this team can turn to. Cloud can take off from behind the three-point line. Ariel Atkins showed what she can do in Game 1. Toliver is Toliver, who also has a championship under her belt.
But do you know who is another Delle Donne on the Mystics? Emma Meesseman, as said by her teammates.
"It's fun to watch [Meesseman]," Cloud said back in September. "It's almost like you're looking at another Elena Delle Donne. They're both very similar in their play... to be able to have them in the starting lineup, it's like pick your poison."
Meesseman will fill in the void offensively. She did in Game 2, and has performed in every game of the playoffs thus far. Washington even showed how they can fight without Delle Donne with a 19-7 run in the second half on Tuesday against the Sun.
Head coach Mike Thibault isn't concerned too much about missing their franchise player, even though there are eery parallels from last year. There are plenty of areas he feels they can improve that can be a difference.
"It doesn't matter who's out there right now, do you want to make a defensive effort?" Thibault said he told his team at halftime of Game 2. "We came out and did that in the third quarter. We held them to 17 points in the third quarter, and we looked like our Mystics team defensively, but we couldn't sustain it to the end."
"We can make some adjustments defensively on a few things and just play better. I think it took us a while, mentally to adjust to Elena being out of the game," Thibault said. "Now we have four days to prepare for that possibility."
And that is what the focus is going to be for Washington as they prepare for the series to move to Connecticut - playing without Delle Donne assuming she is not able to go. If she can play, great. That will be a good problem for the Mystics to strategize around.
But if she can't, they'll need to find an answer to slow down the 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones who had the first 32-point, 18-rebound game in WNBA playoffs history in Game 2. Using tight, person-on-person defense for a full 40 minutes instead of doing it in a spurt. Crashing the boards, finding loose balls all must be improved with or without Delle Donne.
“We’ve worked on some big things on defense, like communicating more,” Meesseman told the Washington Post. “I think that’s the big thing for us, and be more physical, so I don’t think it really matters who’s on the court for that. Everybody has to be physical and take a step higher in everything we do on defense and rebounding.”
Thibault will have them prepared for an offense without their star player. That won't be an issue. He's taken two separate franchises to the WNBA Finals before. Unlike most teams in the WNBA, though, the Connecticut Sun will not keel over to the offensive prowess of the Mystics.
And for Washington to keep their championship aspirations, they'll have to win at least one of the two games in Connecticut. Game 3 is on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
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