Photo by Ben Standig for The Sports Capitol

Mystics update on injured Delle Donne remains knee-to-know basis

BY BEN STANDIG | AUG. 30, 2018

SMITH CENTER — Athletic knees make news. The importance of the largest joint in the body is evident when discussing Derrius Guice’s shiftiness, John Wall’s speed or Bryce Harper’s power. Yet it’s rarely the focus of positive discussions, sent instead to the topic sidecar. That is until fear of injury enters the scene. Then the knee, with its essential yet fragile ligaments, whose abbreviations are more common in conversation the names of the affected sports stars, takes center stage.

Knee concerns for Guice, Wall, and Harper popped in recent years with results ranging from season-ending to in-season derailment to scare. The left knee of Washington Mystics standout Elena Delle Donne received the unwanted spotlight treatment because of an alarming spill in Tuesday’s 78-75 Game 2 road loss against the Atlanta Dream. The best-of-5 semifinal series shifts back to Washington for Friday’s Game 3 and Sunday’s Game 4.

Those games are happening regardless. No disrespect to wing guard Kristi Tolliver, who is Washington’s top shooter without the prolific Delle Donne, or Most Improved Player of the Year hopeful Natasha Cloud or the shot-blocking LaToya Sanders. Whether the Mystics’ leading scorer and WNBA Most Valuable Player candidate plays in either game on her injured knee was the main subject at Thursday’s practice.

“Let me guess what the first question would be,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said while striding up to the assembled and silent media contingent. He answered the unasked, but the top-of-mind inquiry about Delle Donne’s status. “I don’t know.”

That the 2015 WNBA Most Valuable Player isn’t automatically out for Friday’s matchup at the Mystics temporary home on the George Washington University campus counts as positive. Delle Donne’s knee appeared to buckle while driving to the basket with just over three minutes remaining and the Mystics ahead, 70-68. The subsequent actions – fall, crumple, immobile, assistance required – shot fear through the Mystics. They won this season without the 6-foot-5 forward. This isn’t the time of year to try again.

Thibault and the other players may not have a choice. Delle Donne did not participate in the practice session. Out of view for the entire window available to reporters and cameras, the first-team All-WNBA selection emerged from the locker room and made her way up a lengthy set of steps sporting a big ice bag on that notable knee along with a noticeable limp.

“We did our job in stealing one on the road,” Cloud said. “Yes we want to be greedy and (have) it be 2-0 right now, but it’s 1-1 and they have to come play two games in our house now. We’re excited. Elena is OK. We’re not sure if she’s able to play … but it’s a relief to have our leader back regardless of whether it’s on the court or not.”

Thibault added a few other medical nuggets. That headline-generating knee swelled minimally. Delle Donne is “walking much better,” compared to the immediate aftermath. “Walking, running and cutting are a little bit different,” the keeping-it-real Thibault said. Treatment is going round-the-clock. Friday morning’s shootaround becomes a big test.

“It’s a pain tolerance and motion [issue],” Thibault said. “If your motion is not limited, if you can push off and cut, you can go. There’s going to be pain involved somewhere if she plays. She’s a tough player. We’ll see what happens. I’m making no predictions one way or another.”

There’s no sane argument for thinking the Mystics are better off without Delle Donne, who averaged 29.5 points and 13.5 rebounds while shooting 50 percent on 3-pointers in the first two games. Without the inside-outside force, the Mystics do “become less predictable from a set perspective,” ESPN analyst Kara Lawson told The Sports Capitol.

“You don’t have to run these complicated sets for [Elena]. You just have to get her the ball in the right spot, and she’s going to make a play,” said Lawson, the Wizards’ and WNBA television analyst who played for the Mystics from 2014-15. “Atlanta knows what’s coming with her. They just can’t stop it all the time.”

The flip side, Lawson notes, is that while Washington may tap into different pages of the playbook without Delle Donne, the defensive game planning for the other players won’t be nearly as exhausting.

Toliver, who joined Delle Donne in the 2018 WNBA All-Star game, missed the potential game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of Game 2. While one of the league’s top deep shooters throughout her career, Toliver becomes less effective on the ball, a scenario she found herself often after Delle Donne exited. Washington scored one point in the final 2:02.

Veteran Tianna Hawkins likely replaces Delle Donne in the starting lineup if needed. The 6-foot-3 forward sank 36 percent of her attempts from beyond the arc this season. She doesn’t require a defensive double-team or create opportunities off the dribble.

“You don’t make radical adjustments,” Thibault said of the no-Delle Donne scenario. “We might play a smaller lineup a little bit more like we did at the end of [Game 2]. The defensive principles don’t change. That stays consistent. Offensively we might run more plays for some of the guards, but these are [sets] we already have. In 48 hours you’re not going to put in a new offense.”

In 48 hours fans and analysts can hyper-scrutinize an injured knee that might keep out one of the WNBA’s best players. Washington, which has never reached a league final, was 10-1 since July 31 before Tuesday’s loss. Downing the Dream without its best player isn’t a fantasy. The Mystics won at Phoenix, one of four teams still alive in the postseason, back in May without Delle Donne. The playoffs are next level. Intensity rises. Focus deepens. Not just on the next game, but who plays, who doesn’t and why.

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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