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How Elena Delle Donne went from potential season-ending injury to WNBA superstar again in 5 days

Inside the five-day injury scare that threatened to submarine the Mystics’ WNBA title hopes.

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Up two points with three minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Elena Delle Donne grabbed a rebound on one end and pushed full-speed toward the other. Putting the team on her back is what one of the league’s best scorers does, and she was a few plays away from sealing a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five semifinals series on the road against the No. 2 seed Atlanta Dream.

The 6’5 WNBA unicorn headed full-steam down the right side of the court for a layup. That was when her knee buckled in a way that’s tough to look at.

“Just once,” Delle Donne said when SB Nation asked her if she saw the replay. “I’ll never watch it again.”

Five days before her interview with SB Nation, the Mystics’ franchise forward wasn’t sure if she’d be able to play another minute in 2018. Now, after a gutsy Game 5 road win over Atlanta, she and her franchise are playing for their first WNBA title.

“We can’t win a championship without her,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud recalled thinking. “We can’t win a series without her.”

The moment was devastating not to just Delle Donne, her teammates, and fans, but for her inner circle. Elena and her wife, Amanda, host her agent, Erin Yates Kane, whenever she’s in town from New Jersey. The trio — bound together by their love of food, Ozark, and much more — knew how crushing the moment was. Amanda was in the stands in Atlanta as Elena fell, receiving texts about how bad it looked on replay. Until the game ended, Amanda and Kane could only receive updates from Mystics staffers.

For fans, a major injury is a huge bummer and maybe leads to a few panicked tweets and/or texts. For those close to the player, it’s like seeing their loved one’s professional life come crashing down in an instant. On national television. Two wins away from the WNBA Finals.

“My first thought was concern for Elena and what this could mean for the remainder of the postseason, international play with Team USA coming up in the fall,” Kane told SB Nation. “All that flashes through your mind, and then it’s secondarily important to how [she] is doing.”

There was some optimism when Delle Donne was spotted walking after Game 2, but those close to her still feared a ligament tear. The unknown was haunting for everyone in Delle Donne’s camp, and the Mystics’ star watching her injury unfold all over again in her hotel that night on replay didn’t help.

WNBA: Washington Mystics at Minnesota Lynx Michael Zamora-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. basketball was back to its evergreen state of doomsday Wednesday morning, hours after the injury and two days before Game 3. The Mystics are one of the league’s original franchises, but they’ve never made the Finals. They’re the only team left that hasn’t.

Starved without a superstar since pre-injury Alana Beard more than a decade ago, Washington saw little hope heading into the 2017 season. Then, Delle Donne, a Delaware native, forced a trade from the Chicago Sky so she could be closer to her family. On the spot, she became Washington’s best baller in decades.

That’s what made her sudden injury even tougher to swallow.

On Wednesday, the Mystics flew out from Atlanta back to D.C. to prepare for Game 3. Delle Donne flew with the team, though there was some doubt whether that was best for her. Remember, the WNBA flies its athletes commercially by rule, and the team still wasn’t sure the extent of her injury.

The team arrived in D.C. in the late morning. Delle Donne immediately went to receive the MRI that’d determine the fate of the Mystics’ title hopes. The 6’5 forward told SB Nation she felt scared, truly believing her season might’ve been done. When it came back cleaner than expected, it was a huge sigh of relief.

“That MRI enabled me to breathe,” Delle Donne said.

She was diagnosed with a bone bruise, a huge relief considering the fears of a tear. Delle Donne texted the team’s group chat, though Cloud requested and received an individual text.

“For me at this point it wasn’t about, ‘Shit we just lost a franchise player,’” Cloud told SB Nation. “It was, ‘Shit this is someone I truly care about and this is her health at risk.’”

Greeted by her wife, her huge Great Dane, and her favorite sub from Capriottis — a hometown staple for the Delaware native — Delle Donne was gleaming with better news than expected.

But with less than 48 hours until Game 3, she had her work cut out for her if she wanted to play. Washington sports fans remember Nationals star Bryce Harper missing 42 games in 2017 with a bone bruise. Delle Donne had mere days.

Delle Donne’s knee was swollen, she was in pain, and clearly she wasn’t near 100 percent. She didn’t practice Thursday, and though her mind was set on returning for Friday night’s game, ultimately she was ruled out and the Mystics lost, 81-76. Another loss on Sunday would’ve ended the Mystics’ season.

“I knew if she could walk, she was going to play,” Kristi Toliver, Delle Donne’s all-star teammate, told SB Nation.

But even getting her to walk normally took a fleet of recovery methods. The day before Game 4, Delle Donne went through a list of rehab activities long enough to kill an entire morning. The list, according to a Mystics staffer, included:

  • Two hours in a hyperbaric chamber
  • 10 minutes applying heat
  • 20 minutes receiving a Graston massage
  • Rehab joint mobilization
  • Oblique work
  • Glute work
  • Stretching
  • Shock Wave therapy
  • Walking in an Alter G
  • Icing in a machine called Game Ready for 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off, when she wasn’t engaged in any other type of therapy.
  • One hour in a float tank
  • One hour on a hybrid mat

Delle Donne highlighted the importance of two of those workouts specifically: the hyperbaric chamber and the float tank. The hyperbaric chamber is a full-body machine meant to promote healing by inhaling 100 percent oxygen. The float tank is also meant to generate healing by promoting a state of deep relaxation.

Saturday evening was as calm as one can be while icing a deeply painful knee injury hours before a do-or-die playoff game with the WNBA Finals on the line. Delle Donne’s wife, agent, and father joined her at Chart House, one of her favorite restaurants, on the water in Annapolis, Maryland. She got her usual French dip sandwich and followed it up with her favorite peppermint stick ice cream. The group went home and, at Delle Donne’s father’s request, watched Alabama football dismantle Louisville.

“Just finding a way to get in as much recovery as I can in a small amount of time,” Delle Donne said. “Ice, a lot of laying around and elevating. Staying off of it so the bones can recover and I can be ready to go.”

Still, Delle Donne’s status for Game 4 on Sunday morning was unclear. Mystics coach Mike Thibault had the team practice the day before as if Delle Donne couldn’t play. He didn’t know she’d be good to go until after she’d ran, worked out, and gone through her normal shooting routine that morning.

“It was a nice present to see her in a uniform ready to go,” Thibault said.

Delle Donne returned in a knee brace, and she noticeably wasn’t running the same or attacking the basket as frequently. But even at less than 100 percent, Delle Donne is that good. She scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 21-point Mystics win, making 3-of-5 shots from three-point range and lighting the Charles E. Smith Center on fire with her late-game pull-ups.

Even when she wasn’t making shots earlier in the game, her presence forced Atlanta’s defense to overthink and leave her teammates wide open. Without Delle Donne in Game 3, Washington’s backcourt trio of Cloud, Toliver, and rookie Ariel Atkins combined to shoot 10-of-32. With her back in Game 4, they were 19-of-38, and all four scored in double digits.

After the victory, it was much of the same for Washington’s MVP: Immediate icing after the game, stretching, and rehab workouts. Then, back to watching Ozark with her wife and agent.

Two days later, she and her team were polishing off an 86-81 Game 5 victory to lead the Mystics to the WNBA Finals against the Seattle Storm. It’ll be a terrific series between two up-and-coming teams, and one that should stand out more with Delle Donne back on the floor in search of her first title.