D.C. — Mike Thibault’s voice shrunk when asked about the health status of his team’s and the league’s MVP.
“It didn’t look good,” he repeated twice at the podium after his team’s 99-87 loss in Game 2 of the Finals. A usually cool and collected coach, Thibault was clearly deep in thought. That’s partly because his team showed poor defensive effort in the first half and lost an important game at home. But mostly because the unthinkable happened. Again.
The 2019 WNBA season has been the year of the Washington Mystics, and more specifically, the year of Elena Delle Donne. The MVP tallied the W’s first-ever 50/40/90 shooting season for the the best offense in league history. Thibault’s vision since landing Delle Donne by trade in 2017 came to life. A complete team of shooters, Washington paced and spaced every opponent that came their way. The Mystics not only owned the best record of the regular season, they blew teams out to claim it.
What would’ve been a great year for any coach meant that much more to Thibault, the league’s winningest coach ever (336-242) who still doesn’t have a championship. In his 16th year as a head coach in the W, he’d put all the pieces together: he traded for the now-two-time MVP, drafted studs Emma Meesseman, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud, and signed LaToya Sanders and Kristi Toliver. His roster flourished from top to bottom, with each piece of the puzzle proving her purpose throughout the year.
This didn’t come easy. He’d weathered the hiccups, too. That included Delle Donne breaking her nose midway through the season, and Toliver suffering a bone bruise that kept her out of the last six weeks of play. But the core was back in place for the Finals. Thibault, Delle Donne and the entire city of Washington were almost assuredly going home with a WNBA ring for the first time.
Then, out of nowhere, disaster struck. Now nothing is as certain as it once was. Three minutes into Game 2, Delle Donne caught a pass on the block with the Connecticut Sun’s relentless machine Alyssa Thomas on her back. She took one power dribble left, spun right, squared up and hung in the air like she has all season. But unlike what we’re used to, she forced the ball too strong off the glass. After taking one extra unintentional bump from Jonquel Jones after her release, she motioned for a sub.
That was it for her night, leaving with what was determined to be a small disc herniation in her back.
“This is the one nightmare I’ve had for the last month,” Thibault said postgame, “there’d be some hairline thing on her back. I watched that in 2014 in Chicago, and it wasn’t a good sight for me then, and it wasn’t a good sight for me now.”
The Mystics say Delle Donne will receive treatment for the week and an update on her status will be given on Saturday. Even if she does return, once again she’ll be playing through injury on the biggest stage.
Thibault, Delle Donne and the Mystics deserve better
Both Thibault and Delle Donne receiving the same gut-punch in one swing feels cruel, even for the unforgiving basketball gods who claimed Breanna Stewart, Angel McCoughtry, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi for most if not all of the season. The coach and superstar have seen shit luck at the most inopportune time, again and again. When is enough?
Three WNBA Finals could’ve gone differently for Thibault and Delle Donne. In 2005, Thibault’s Connecticut Sun finished with the best record in the league, and reached the Finals for a second straight year. After losing Game 1, Thibault’s star point guard, Lindsay Whalen, turned her ankle and suffered a non-displaced fracture in her foot. The Sun lost in four games.
In 2014, then with the Chicago Sky, Delle Donne suffered back spasms, which limited her to 10 minutes in Game 1. The Sky were subsequently swept by the Phoenix Mercury. And last season, Thibault’s Mystics were swept by the Seattle Storm after Delle Donne, hobbled with a deep bone bruise suffered in the semifinals, was a shell of herself for the final three games.
The seemingly eternal sadness of Thibault and Delle Donne’s inability to play and coach the Finals the way they deserve to will persist whether she returns in Game 3 or not. It’s unlikely, with just five days between games, she’s going to be at full strength. Once again, Thibault’s going to have to search for answers to big questions with limited time.
Hope isn’t all lost. Delle Donne may return for Game 3, much like she returned after five days of recovery in last year’s postseason. Even if she isn’t a full-go, she’s the best shooter in the world, and Connecticut will have to honor her as such. There’s a gameplan for Thibault to work with there.
If she doesn’t play, there are options too. Though Jones dominated Game 2 for 32 points and 18 boards without 6’5 Delle Donne’s presence to stop her, the Mystics had the game within one possession until the final three minutes of play. Washington’s roster is more than just Delle Donne, with Meesseman, Atkins, Toliver, Cloud and more all capable of carrying the scoring load.
“With or without Elena, this team is capable of winning a championship,” Cloud said.
But this isn’t how the 2019 season was supposed to go. Not in the year the Mystics’ dominance reached its apex, Delle Donne’s brilliance perched the throne of all-time hoopers and Thibault’s offense shattered record books. Not again.