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Face, Knee, and Back Injuries Couldn’t Keep Elena Delle Donne From a WNBA Championship

The Washington Mystics were the WNBA’s best team coming into the postseason, but they still needed every bit of their depth—and every ounce of effort from their star player—to earn the franchise’s first title

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Elena Delle Donne began the WNBA Finals wearing a face mask for her broken nose and a knee brace after that injury from last year’s playoffs, and with her back wearing the immense weight of being the best player in the world and not having a damn title to show for it. She’d been to the WNBA Finals twice before—first in 2014 with the Chicago Sky, and again last year, her first appearance with the Washington Mystics—and gotten injured both times. She played through the pain twice; her teams got swept twice.

She and the Mystics hoped this year would be different—that she could stay healthy and lead the organization to its first Finals victory. But just one minute into Game 2 against the Sun, Delle Donne left with yet another injury. “It didn’t look good,” coach Mike Thibault said after the game, which his team lost 99-87. As it turned out, Delle Donne had herniated three disks in her back. Three disks! Honestly, I didn’t even know my back had multiple disks to herniate.

Nevertheless, she got buckets. She didn’t miss any more games, and Thursday night, after the Mystics’ 89-78 win in Game 5, Delle Donne went to sleep with the trophy.

It was clear that the Mystics were the best team in the league this season. Delle Donne recorded the WNBA’s first 50-40-90 season and was named league MVP in a runaway. The shooter-stacked Mystics were the greatest offensive team in league history. They led the WNBA in field goal percentage despite shooting 116 more 3s than any other team and won 13 of their 34 regular-season games by at least 20 points. Ahead of the playoffs, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projected them to have an 84 percent chance of winning the championship.

But what made this year’s playoffs so great is that the WNBA isn’t a league where people show up to the gym and say “Oh, you’re the best team? That’s cool—here’s your title.” Top women’s players generally get paid more by overseas teams—which play during the fall and winter months—than they do by their WNBA franchises. I bring that up not to get into a long conversation about whether WNBA players deserve more (they do) but just to remind you that all these players essentially give up their summer vacations because they want to play against all the other best players in the world and beat their asses. Nobody got out of the way when they heard the Mystics were coming. They strapped on brass knuckles, picked up baseball bats, and then strapped brass knuckles onto the ends of their baseball bats just for good measure.

In the semifinals, the Las Vegas Aces—who have the last three no. 1 picks on their roster and Liz Cambage, who set the WNBA’s all-time single game scoring record last year—pushed the Mystics to the wire in Game 1 and then whupped Washington by 17 in Game 3. Cambage scored 28 points in the contest, shot 10-for-11 from the paint, and afterward told the Mystics to “get in the weight room or get out of the post.” Washington won the series in Game 4—and the players responded to Cambage’s zing with some on-court pushups.

Next, they had to face the Connecticut Sun, who spent the Finals playing like the Mystics had personally wronged each and every one of them. Jonquel Jones could’ve repeated Cambage’s zing after her 32-point, 18-rebound game in Connecticut’s Game 2 win. Alyssa Thomas, who played through torn labrums in both of her shoulders, had two double-doubles with rebounds, one double-double with assists, and nearly had a triple-double in Game 3.

But the Mystics countered with more weapons than just Delle Donne. In fact, the team is so deep that the Finals MVP came off the bench.

Emma Meesseman, a Belgian backup center, had some decent moments in her WNBA career up to this season. She was an All-Star in 2015 and led the league in 3-point shooting in 2016. But she definitely wasn’t expected to carry the Mystics. After skipping the 2018 season to play internationally, she’d returned in a reserve role this year.

In the playoffs, though, she transformed into something unstoppable. Meesseman had been the team’s leading scorer in just three of their regular-season games; she led the Mystics in four of their six playoff wins. She shot 11-for-17 from 3 in the Las Vegas series, and 7-for-14 in the Finals. But she’s also 6-foot-4 and used her deft shooting touch to torture defenders inside the arc as well.

But even with Meesseman’s outsize bench production and the rest of the team’s shooting capabilities, the Mystics needed Delle Donne. When she is at her best, she is the world’s best—and she makes her team unbeatable. She scored 20-plus points in 15 regular-season games; the Mystics were 15-0 in those games. (They were also 0-3 in games she missed, and 0-2 in games where she played a single minute, including Game 2 of the Finals.)

After Game 2, Delle Donne returned with games of 13 and 11 points, her two lowest point totals of the postseason. But in the biggest game of the year—the one that would determine whether she would finally be a champion—she brought it. The Sun did everything they could to keep Delle Donne waiting, pushing Washington to the edge in a game that had nine lead changes. They even took a brief lead in the fourth quarter. But Delle Donne wasn’t going to wait another 12 months.

Delle Donne’s 50-40-90 line tells you that she’s the best shooter in the league’s history, so maybe you’d assume that with an aching back and a busted knee and a masked face, she hung out between the 3-point arcs and provided moral support. Nah. She played a critical role on the boards and on defense, recording a team-high nine rebounds and two blocks, one of which came against Jones. And all eight of her made field goals came in the paint. She needed this title, and she fought for it.

Dominance is fascinating, and the Mystics were certainly dominant this year. But sports peak when the best players and the best teams are pushed to the brink. We already knew the Mystics were one of the best teams in WNBA history after the regular season, but the playoffs showed how much Washington was willing to fight to prove it.