Elena Delle Donne didn’t even bother with traditional post-loss stoicism. She looked completely at peace, almost happy, after her Mystics lost an 86-83 Game 1 thriller to the Storm in Seattle on Thursday night. Maybe she knows she did everything she could for her team – how can you be angry about a 26-point performance like that? Perhaps she was grateful to be there, after two years spent rehabbing from back surgeries and a year of load management to make her long-awaited return to postseason basketball. She praised her teammates and their patience with her: “The most important thing for me was how they stuck when there were moments like, is this girl going to play on our team again? Is she going to play basketball again?”
Her postgame press conference last night struck me as the opposite of the uplifting Delle Donne gave last playoff press conference. In it, after the Mystics’ 2019 championship win, it became uncomfortably clear that the happiest moment of her professional life had come at the cost of excruciating pain. Everyone knew she was dealing with some injury, but no one understood the extent of it. “I’m going to drop this bomb on all of you,” her colleague Natasha Cloud told reporters at the time. She revealed that Delle Donne had played the series with three herniated discs. “Surprise!” Delle Donne, sitting to Claude’s right, said casually.
Last night’s Delle Donne felt good—a new guilt-free version of an old favorite. The best part was how great she looked from there. After spending two seasons out of sight and out of mind, she drills tough shot after tough shot, like she’s the only thing in your sight, the only thing on your mind. The Mystics defend better than any other WNBA team, but lack much offensive production beyond Delle Donne. And it almost doesn’t matter! Had Defector-certified Pure Hooper Jewell Lloyd not come alive for Seattle in crunch time, Delle Donne’s 18-point second-half takeover would have done the trick. Any basketball fan knows the feeling of watching a player, over the course of a few close minutes, inspire wild belief. Going in, I thought, Delle Donne hit a turnaround jumper over Tina Charles. Breanna Stewart (a highly touted Defensive Player of the Year candidate) was putting her hands over her face as the shot clock expired, I thought, this is so on. I thought Delle Donne would do all the crazy things she would do on the other side of the glass. Her drama just kept believing. She could have walked to the opposite end of the court, away from the Washington basket, and bounced the basketball over her head. My confidence was not shaken at all.
If back injuries robbed Dele Donne of her agility for a few years, she doesn’t seem to miss it much. She still has the frame to play bully ball and hasn’t lost the excellent shooting touch that made her the first 50/40/90 player in the WNBA in 2019. His shooting percentage has dropped from 97.4 in that MVP season to a miserable 91 this year. Pick up, Elena!) I don’t know how much to hope for the mystics; They played as well as they had hoped and got a game against a Storm team that was another layer above them. But Delle Donne’s strength and deft, seemingly fragile skills seem to be a triumph.