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Elena Delle Donne and Ariel Atkins’ fight through injury may have saved the Mystics

Two stars battled through injuries to put the Mystics on the brink of a championship.

Washington Mystics players celebrate during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.
The Mystics got a huge emotional lift from Elena Delle Donne in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The Washington Mystics prepared all week to play without their two-time MVP, Elena Delle Donne, in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Two wins away from a championship, it was a miserable life to picture, but Delle Donne was suffering from a herniated disc in her back that kept her out for all but three minutes of a Game 2 loss at home. The superstar whose teammates “bah” like a goat for her in the locker room was in serious pain at the worst time. It was a familiar story.

Sunday was make-or-break for the Mystics, and it began without clarity. Nobody knew the status of Delle Donne or starting guard Ariel Atkins, who also had back spasms, until 30 minutes before tip. An hour before the game, Thibault told reporters he was still unsure if either would be able to go. Then, to the surprise of the team, it was announced Delle Donne and Atkins were not only going to play in Game 3, but both would start.

Their willingness to play through pain might have saved the Mystics’ title chances.

“Damn, they’re really giving everything they got,” Mystics guard Aerial Powers remembered thinking when she heard the news before tipoff. “And a back is nothing to play with. So you know as a teammate, if they’re doing that, you better be coming off the court fucking tired. Period. If your family is giving everything they’ve got, you’ve got to match it, if not more because they’re hurt.”

With Delle Donne and Atkins in, the Mystics played with a different energy from the lackluster slog that saw them lose by double-digits in Game 2. They came away with the 94-81 victory they needed to put them one win away from a championship.

The Mystics were red-hot from the get-go. Natasha Cloud came out firing from distance, sinking 5-of-10 threes for 19 points. Kristi Toliver, freed from the burden of carrying the scoring load, connected on 7-of-9 shots for 20 points. And playoff Emma Meesseman was back too, torching Jones for 21 points on 13 shots.

Neither of the two injured stars looked themselves, but that was never the point. Atkins only logged 14 minutes and made one of seven shots, and Delle Donne was a shell of herself. The 6’5 all-world talent, already strapped in a lofty leg brace from last season’s injury and a face mask for her broken nose two months ago, couldn’t blow by defenders off the dribble and was reduced to straight line cuts and setting screens in high pick-and-rolls. She wasn’t out there as a decoy. She just played a reduced role, spacing the floor to sink 5-of-6 shots for 13 points.

But having the full lineup in action, no matter how limited, revitalized the dynamic offense that makes the Mystics so great. They swung the ball rapidly around the perimeter, tying a WNBA Finals record with 16 made threes on 27 attempts. They assisted on 20 buckets, shot 51 percent from the field, and drained all 10 of their free-throw tries. Washington was having fun. A mic’d up Powers screamed “Yeah, baby! Yeah, baby!” live on ABC after securing one of her eight rebounds and draining a put-back layup in the paint.

The constant reminder of what Delle Donne was fighting through was in clear view for her teammates throughout the game. Thibault only played his star in short spurts, and each time she was subbed out, she’d leave the bench to move around on a stationary bike in the hallway outside the locker room to stay active. “Sitting is my worst enemy,” Delle Donne said. “I haven’t sat much these past couple of days. When I do, I get really stiff and it’s hard to get up from it.”

There remained a sense of responsibility on everyone to contribute above and beyond their usual roles in the minutes Delle Donne did play and the ones she didn’t. “They came out there for us,” Meesseman said after the game. “So I think all of us thought, ‘We got you.’”

Delle Donne was careful not to push her back too much, but a star’s mentality can’t be contained for a full 40 minutes. With three minutes to play, she pulled off the ultimate warriors’ task of taking the moment upon herself to seal the game despite her back discomfort.

The Sun had cut a Mystics lead down to 10 when Delle Donne showed the ball one way, then zipped by Alyssa Thomas on the baseline. In vintage Delle Donne fashion, she hit the breaks and decelerated as she neared the rim, scoring over the top of 6’2 forward Bria Holmes.

Nothing about the move was pretty. Delle Donne was steps slower than usual and missing the lift that typically makes her shot untouchable. But the message was clear: there was no feeling sorry for her in her third consecutive trip to the Finals with injury.

“It was kind of one of the moments like, ‘Hey, I might give my back up and my body up on this one,’” Delle Donne said after the game. “But I feel like it was such a big moment to stop that run they’re making.”

So much is at stake for Washington this postseason. The franchise hasn’t won a title in 21 years of existence. Mike Thibault, the winningest W head coach of all time, is ring-less in his 16th year. And Delle Donne, one of the game’s greatest ever, has now been injured in all three of her Finals appearances, losing the first two in sweeps. If any year was going to turn around two decades of suffering, it was 2019. This has been the year of the Mystics all along.

The team finished as the No. 1 seed with a record-shattering offense. But nothing has been easy since. The Finals have thrown curveball after curveball that nobody could’ve been prepared for. The team was one loss from the tide completely turning in the Connecticut Sun’s direction.

There is no underselling the importance of winning Game 3 for the Mystics. Now, they just need just one more win, whether that be on the road on Tuesday, or back in D.C. for a potential Game 5 on Thursday.

The Mystics’ journey was rewritten in Game 3. And now they’re 40 minutes from finishing off a season to remember for all the right reasons.