Elena Delle Donne wore a brace over her bruised knee, a mask over her broken nose, and ran awkwardly with three herniated discs in her back. She was a walking zombie on the biggest stage of her career with every reason to crumble. For three games in the WNBA Finals, the Connecticut Sun held an advantage in slowing down her down. They just couldn’t do it when it counted the most.
Delle Donne is the best player in the world, and no game proved that more than her 21-point, nine-rebound effort to win a decisive Game 5, and a championship for the Washington Mystics. This was her team. This was her year. And this was the moment that tied a bow on one of the best seasons of basketball anyone has ever played.
The coronation of EDD was anything but easy. She’d weathered the deep bone bruise in her knee and broken nose all season, but in Game 2, disaster struck yet again as she removed herself from the court, clutching her back. The herniated discs held her out of all but three minutes of the Mystics’ loss on their home court, swinging the series in the Sun’s favor, one game apiece, heading back to Connecticut.
Unfortunately, Delle Donne knew this scene all too well. She’d already battled back spasms when she was swept in the 2014 Finals with the Chicago Sky. She managed the bone bruise when she was swept in the 2018 Finals. No way this could be happening. Not again.
Twenty hours after she played her first game through the herniated disks, she still wasn’t feeling right. She’d played well enough in Game 3 to help her team win, scoring 13 points on six shots. But Delle Donne was visibly tired both mentally and physically. Probably because she had trouble sleeping.
On the road in a Mohegan Sun hotel, Delle Donne and her wife, Amanda, had to get creative with her bed setup. They laid pillows every which way to try and comfort the 6’5 star’s back, but she could only find peace in two awkward positions. When she’d turn out of them during the night, she’d wake right up. The pain, which she described as “nauseating,” was so bad her wife needed to help her put her pants on and tie her shoes.
“This hurts more,” Delle Donne said before Game 4. “Knees I feel like they’re achy, they hurt, but you can push through. Backs, you take one long step and it feels like you’re paralyzed. This is worse.”
Watching Delle Donne play through pain in the final three games of the WNBA Finals was both incredible and depressing. Her game was clearly limited. “It’s just frustrating when I get the ball and I know my normal body would be able to drive by or pull-up,” she said after Game 3. “I just know that I’ve gotta pass it right now and space out.”
Through the injuries all season long, she won her second MVP award and logged the first 50/40/90 shooting season in WNBA history. We were just getting accustomed to how ridiculous those achievements were given her beat-up limbs. Now, adding a back injury on top of it, felt like watching the biggest, most unnecessary underdog movie of all time.
In a decisive Game 5, Delle Donne proved why she is one of the best to ever do it. It was her moment to push past the pain and not succumb another to injury, and she went above and beyond. Her spin move was back in business, the elevation on her jump shots returned, and the aggressiveness to create looks was reborn. None of it was pretty to watch. Not a drop. She was moving in slow motion at times, limited to basic line drive cuts and few dribble moves, but she battled her way to the cup again and again.
With nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, the Mystics had just come back from a nine-point deficit. This was their push to their first title in franchise history. Alyssa Thomas, the Sun’s 6’2 bulldozer charged through the paint and air-balled a floated before the rim. On the attempt to snatch the rebound, Delle Donne took a hit from 6’6 Jonquel Jones and came crashing to the floor. Mystics guard Natasha Cloud came up with the board, and as three Washington players charged the other way, Kristi Toliver stayed back to lift Delle Donne and her messed up back off the floor.
The friendship of Washington’s most prominent players were on full display. But this was something more. They had a title to win. As Cloud slowed the pace, Delle Donne recovered to the top of the paint. The ball swung in her direction, and she found open space to drive. As quickly as her body would allow, she charged towards the hoop, giving back to Jones with a runner right in her face to give Washington a lead it wouldn’t lose.
“Well, I always knew she had grit,” head coach Mike Thibault said. “It’s sometimes, you need the opportunity to display it.”