August 19, 2022
Finally healthy for the playoffs, Elena Delle Donne has a ‘dominating’ Game 1 performance
But Delle Donne and the Mystics couldn’t write the storybook ending
As Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne hit shot after contested shot in the second half of Thursday’s first-round playoff game, Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn could only stand on the sidelines and watch.
“You pray,” Quinn said about how to defend Delle Donne. “You ask the Lord to blow a wind and make that thing change directions.”
Quinn’s prayers went unheeded until Delle Donne’s final shot, a potential game-tying 3-pointer that glanced off the back iron with 16.1 seconds remaining. The fifth-seeded Mystics lost 86-83 in Game 1 of the best-of-three series despite a stellar performance from Delle Donne, who finished with 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting (11-for-13 inside the arc), five assists and three rebounds in 32 minutes.
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Early on, it didn’t seem like it would be a banner scoring night for Delle Donne. Though she hit a turnaround jump shot on the game’s first possession, that was her only shot attempt in the first quarter, and she took just three more shots in the second, entering halftime with eight points. She was frequently double-teamed and was a willing passer, recording four assists to three different teammates in the first half.
“We were seeing them even kind of double-team her before she caught it,” Washington head coach Mike Thibault said. “I thought she did a good job of finding people.”
Thibault and the Mystics adjusted at halftime, moving Delle Donne out of the paint and to spots where they figured Delle Donne wouldn’t get that preemptive double-team — mainly on the elbow and on the perimeter. They also emphasized ball-movement, which helped create driving lanes offensively. And when Delle Donne got double-teamed and passed the ball to a teammate, that teammate sometimes passed it right back, as the double-team was moving away.
The result was that Delle Donne got the ball more in the second half and had better angles to attack, and she went to work late in the third quarter. With 97 seconds remaining in the quarter, she drove against Storm center Ezi Magbegor and made a contested jump shot to tie the game at 60 and push herself into double-figure scoring. She hit two more shots before the quarter was up, a short-range jump shot as the shot clock expired and a putback of a Myisha Hines-Allen miss plus the foul with just 1.1 seconds left.
Delle Donne opened the fourth quarter in much the same way: On the first possession, before ESPN’s between-quarters courtside interview had even finished airing, she got the ball behind the 3-point line and drove to the rim, shedding defender Stephanie Talbot and pump-faking help defender and Storm star Breanna Stewart out of the way for a layup. At that point, she had scored the Mystics’ last nine points.
Over the next three minutes, Delle Donne sank a free-throw, assisted on an Ariel Atkins 3-pointer, and cut backdoor for a seemingly effortless reverse layup. The latter gave the Mystics a 75-70 lead and forced Quinn to call a timeout.
“Three letters [are] dominating this stretch of the game,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said after the reverse layup. “E-D-D!”
Less than two minutes later, Delle Donne popped out to the 3-point line to get the ball, took one dribble, and scored her 21st and 22nd points of the game on a 16-foot jump shot with a hand in her face. “Elena Delle Donne is taking over this game,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Pam Ward said.
“This is what separates Elena Delle Donne from every other player in the world, quite honestly, is how easily she hits contested buckets,” Robinson added.
Delle Donne made two more shots on the night, the last of which put the Mystics up three points with 1:58 left. It wasn’t enough, as Seattle pulled off an 8-2 closing run, but Delle Donne certainly made her mark in her first playoff game since undergoing two back surgeries in 2020. Seattle players talked among themselves after the game about Delle Donne’s shot-making, and Stewart told reporters, “She hit some really tough shots… She rose to the occasion.”
Beyond her shot-making, the fact that Delle Donne was fully healthy for Thursday was an achievement in itself. She has been star-crossed in the playoffs throughout her career: back issues plagued her in the 2014 WNBA Finals with the Chicago Sky, a knee injury limited her in the 2018 Finals with the Mystics, and she suffered three herniated discs in her back in Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA Finals that left her hobbled. She played just three games combined in 2020 and 2021 as she recovered from surgery, and she missed 11 games this season for scheduled rest days.
“To go through what she went through with her back, to put in the hours and work and time and frustrations and all that that she did to be where she is today, back in the playoffs, it’s a testament to her,” point guard Natasha Cloud said postgame. “It’s a testament to the people that were around her to help her get on the floor. But this is Elena Delle Donne. This is what she does.”
Indeed, the medical staff’s plan to pace Delle Donne in the regular season so she would peak in the playoffs appears to be working. She currently has no firm minutes limit or other “major restrictions,” Thibault said on Wednesday.
“She’s available. Period,” he said. “She’s able to play every game right now and she has no intention of sitting out unless something happens.… This is what we built this for. The whole model that we’ve used for the season was to be prepared so that she could play without any restrictions in the playoffs.”
The final thing Delle Donne needed to click into place was her shot. She made only three of 19 shots across two games in early August, and though her field goal percentages rebounded in the Mystics’ last two regular-season games, she entered the playoffs having made one 3-pointer in her last five games.
So Delle Donne called her father, Ernie — the only shooting coach she has ever had — and brought him from her home state of Delaware to Washington before the Mystics left for Seattle to fine-tune her mechanics. Though her 3-pointers still didn’t fall on Thursday (she shot 0-for-4 from that distance), she made 84.6% of her 2-pointers and said postgame that her shot “feels great.”
“We love Mr. Delle Donne. I love Mr. Delle Donne,” Cloud interjected, to Elena Delle Donne’s embarrassment. “You can work on my shot, too, Mr. Delle Donne.”
“He just brings good juju all around,” Elena Delle Donne quipped about her father in response to Cloud before urging someone to mute her teammate’s microphone.
Delle Donne became just the second player in WNBA playoff history to have 26 points and five assists while making at least 80% of her 2-pointers, per Her Hoop Stats. In total, she scored or assisted on 39 of the Mystics’ 83 points. It was a vintage Delle Donne performance in many ways — or perhaps even better. In her 22 previous playoff games with the Mystics, she had scored at least 26 points only twice and had at least five assists only three times. She had topped her 64.7% shooting from the field just once, in a 13-point outing in 2019.
“Your best player gets 26 points in a playoff game against a good team and has five assists… I can’t ask much more than the effort we got,” Thibault said postgame.
Delle Donne spoke on Wednesday about how grateful and excited she was to be healthy for the playoffs after experiencing “some of the toughest moments of my life” since her 2019 injury. On Thursday, she said how much it meant to her to have the support of her teammates even when her career might’ve seemed over.
Thursday’s game almost gave Delle Donne a Hollywood-style return to the playoffs. She and the Mystics came up one shot short, but they’ll try to rewrite the ending — and stave off elimination — in Game 2.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.