Elena Delle Donne didn’t even bother with traditional post-loss stoicism. She looked perfectly peaceful, almost happy, after her Mystics lost a thriller Game 1 86-83 to The Storm on Thursday night in Seattle. Perhaps she knew she had done everything for her team – how could one fret over such a 26-point performance? Maybe she was just grateful to be there, making her long-awaited return to postseason basketball after two years of rehab from back surgery and a year of stress management. Speaking of admiration for her teammates and their patience with her, she said: “What means the most to me is how they stuck it out when there were moments where it was, will this girl ever play on our team again? Will she ever play basketball again?”
Your post-game press conference last night struck me as the uplifting opposite of the last playoff press conference Delle Donne gave. In this one, after winning the 2019 Mystics championship, it became uncomfortably clear that the happiest moment of her professional life had come at the cost of excruciating pain. Everyone knew she was struggling with some kind of injury, but no one understood the extent. “I’m about to drop this bombshell on you all,” her teammate Natasha Cloud told reporters at the time. She revealed that Delle Donne played the series with three herniated discs. “Surprise!” said Delle Donne, who was sitting on Cloud’s right, embarrassed.
Last night’s Delle Donne felt good – a new guilt-free version of an old favorite. The best part was how great she looked out there. After spending two seasons out of sight and out of mind, she pounded hard hit after hard hit like she was determined to be the only thing in your eyes, the only thing on your mind. The Mystics defend better than any other WNBA team, but lack a lot of offensive creation beyond Delle Donne. And it almost didn’t matter! Had it not been for Defector-certified Pure Hooper Jewell Loyd coming alive for Seattle in crunch time, Delle Donne’s 18-point second-half acquisition would have done the trick. Every basketball fan knows the feeling of seeing a player within minutes inspire wild belief. This goes in, I thought as Delle Donne shot a turnaround jumper over Tina Charles. That’s how it goes, I thought as Breanna Stewart (a very plausible candidate for Defensive Player of the Year) got a hand in the face as the shot clock was about to expire. She’ll definitely do that, I thought, out of every crazy contested thing Delle Donne would give up to turn down the glass. Their play only justified belief over and over again. She could have gone to the other end of the field, turned away from the Washington basket and heaved the basketball backwards over her head. My confidence would not have wavered a bit.
If back injuries have robbed Delle Donne of some of her speed over the years, she didn’t look like she’d miss it much. She still has the frame to play faceoff ball, and she hasn’t lost the exquisite touch that made her the first 50/40/90 player in the WNBA in 2019. The throw rate has shrunk from 97.4 this MVP season to a pathetic 91 this year. Take it, Elena!) I don’t know how hopeful to be about the mystics; They played as well as they could have hoped and find themselves in a match against a Storm team of a different level. But it feels like a victory that Delle Donne’s strength and finesse, his fragile-looking skills, have outlasted.