WASHINGTON -- A 12-minute and 15-second span is all the time the Washington Mystics got to enjoy a full roster and coaching staff. Early in the second quarter against the Chicago Sky, a dreaded sequence occurred where Elena Delle Donne took an awkward step and motioned to the bench for a substitution.
She would leave the contest for good and not return. The Mystics, however, would go on to take their first win in three tries against the Chicago Sky, 84-82, but all focus and concern return to the franchise star’s back.
Fortunately for Washington, there doesn’t appear to be any fear that this is a notable setback.
“It wasn’t anything necessarily serious, just tightening and better to sit her down,” head coach Mike Thibault said postgame. “I don’t foresee anything long-term at that. She still hasn’t seen the doctor yet, but she’s going to be okay I think.”
This is the first ‘scare’ of the season for Delle Donne as she hasn’t missed a game due to injury this year. Things were going smoothly for her as she and the organization were being cautious with her workload in the early portion. Four rest games scattered in-between the first 12 contests of the season were all a part of the plan. Strategically, the team is identifying games - primarily road contests - that could lead to increased strain on Delle Donne’s back due to travel and multiple games in a short span of time.
Other than that, there’s been no major limitations or even a huge minutes restriction.
Something happened, though, in the second quarter against the Sky. Delle Donne set a screen on Allie Quigley and grabbed just above her right hip. As Chicago was going for a fastbreak opportunity Delle Donne was trying to get the attention of the Mystics bench to call a timeout. Once Thibault obliged, Delle Donne went straight to discuss with her trainer and headed back to the Mystics locker room.
Delle Donne’s back issues stem back to the 2019 WNBA Finals where she suffered three herniated discs in her back en route to a title. That offseason she had multiple back procedures and the recovery caused her to miss the 2020 season and all but three games in 2021.
In fact, a similar situation occurred last year when Delle Donne returned for good. She was pulled as a precautionary measure there and then never played the rest of the season.
Playing without the former two-time MVP is nothing new for Washington. The Mystics have prepared all season for situations and games without her and other starters. Tianna Hawkins, who was coming off her first 20-point game in over two seasons, filled in and took the open minutes.
“The concern about Elena is not even about basketball,” Natasha Cloud said. “It's just about our teammate and someone that we consider a family. So she's fine, we'll learn more about her. She has some time to rest and just get back.”
“Obviously seeing her leave the floor you pay attention to that stuff,” Alysha Clark said. “But again, in the flow of the game, you can't worry about it because again, you lose sight of what matters and that's being present for the game. And we'll talk and see what's going on. Obviously, I'll check on her and make sure she's good. But in the moment of the game yeah, like when you see her leave, you're like, ‘damn, hope she's okay. All right, we got to get this dub.’”
That victory was in question up until the final seconds. Washington built a 17-point lead in the third quarter, but the Sky took advantage of 19 points of the Mystics' turnovers to remain in the contest. Cloud would sink two go-ahead free throws to seal the win.
Ariel Atkins led the way with 19 points on an efficient shooting night (8-for-12 field goals), while Clark posted a season-high with 18 points. It was also a big night for rookie Shakira Austin (14 points, two blocks) in defense of two-time MVP Candace Parker.
Sights now turn to Sunday when the Mystics start a series of back-to-back games against the Phoenix Mercury. Thibault said the team will have more answers then as it was not a scheduled rest day for Delle Donne.
“It wasn’t any of the symptoms from a year ago. It wasn’t any of that, just uncomfortable more than anything,” Thibault said.
But, whether fortunately or unfortunately, the Mystics are prepared to weather any potential missed time for their leading scorer. Already there’s been combined 25 games missed due to injury this season and this year is a far better situation than what the franchise has dealt with in the years prior.
“We have everything that we need in our locker room, regardless of who can play each night or who can't," Cloud said. "We still have weapons and everybody can eat on this team. So, I think our mentality was ‘okay yeah, we're concerned but we gotta lock in here and we got to be that much better.’ Everyone has to take another step up, another level up because we are missing one of our best players."