When Emma Meesseman went to the scorer’s table to check in to Game 2 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday, it should’ve meant that Mystics coach Mike Thibault was prepared to get his two best scorers on the floor to combat the hot start from the Connecticut Sun.
Instead that move shifted from optimism to dread when WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne did not make a pit-stop at the bench. She headed straight to the locker room with back spasms, where she would not emerge again until after the Mystics had fallen, 99-87, as the Sun evened up the championship series, 1-1.
The injury could not have come at a much worse time for the team, who are two games away from potentially winning its first WNBA title.
“It’s the one nightmare I’ve had in the past month, seeing her laid out on her back like she was in 2014 in Chicago,” Thibault said after the game.
In 2014, a lower back injury severely limited Delle Donne in the Eastern Conference Finals. Back then, herniated discs took away her opportunity to compete at the highest level. The Mystics announced Wednesday night that Delle Donne’s MRI revealed a small disc herniation and an update on her status for Sunday’s Game 3 will be given on Saturday.
“I never had it in my thoughts or in my mind that would happen. I think that’s sports. It happens,” Messeeman said.
As the hero from the first round series against the Aces, Messeeman made sure she tried to stay within her game. She didn’t force her shots just because the team’s best player was missing.
“It’s not like when she’s on the court, I’m not trying to be aggressive,” she said. “I don’t ever think, ‘Elena’s not here. I have to do more.’ I just think that as a team we have to step it up. I don’t think anyone was thinking about Elena not being there. We’re not feeling sad or sorry for ourselves. We’re just doing what we can to win the game.”
The Mystics put forth one of the best statistical seasons in WNBA history not just because of Delle Donne but through its depth. It was the bench players that got the Mystics back into the game in the second half on Tuesday.
Tiana Hawkins, who has played sparingly over the course of the Mystics playoff run and only logged five minutes in Game 1, came out and scored 16 points off of the bench on 6 of 8 shooting from the field and provided a major spark in the absence of Delle Donne. But Hawkins’ performance did not offset the team’s defensive lapses. The Sun dominated on the boards and outrebounded the Mystics, 41-27.
“They were aggressive because we didn’t put a stamp on our defense to start the game,” she said. “They hit a few shots. It was tough at first. Connecticut is the type of team that when they feel themselves, they’re kinda dangerous. We have to put our foot down as soon as we start the next game. We have to rebound better. We gave them a lot of second-chance points.”
The Sun also controlled the paint to the tune of a combined 53 points and 30 rebounds between Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones.
Jones set a WNBA Finals record of nine offensive rebounds and her 32 points were the most in a Finals game since 2011.
Mystics guard Kristi Toliver isn’t concerned.
“This team is not in any type of panic mode at all,” she said. “You know, we feel very confident because of who we are as a team and what everybody brings, and obviously when you go on the road, it’s always more challenging, but we know where their advantage is, and points in the paint, and that was rebounding the basketball offensively, and so we clean up those two areas, this can be a very quick fix for us.”
Toliver finished 6 of 20 from the field and played a team high 39 minutes, despite the fact that she is still recovering from an injury that caused her to miss much of the second half of the season before the playoffs.
If Delle Donne misses time, it’ll be difficult for the Mystics to recreate her all-around game, but the team does have one factor on its side: time. They won’t play Game 3 until Sunday, which will give Delle Donne ample opportunity to get treatment for her back. If she’s unable to go, the Mystics chances of winning the WNBA title will certainly decrease.
But as it has all season, the team will be able to rely on its depth and talent to win games. On Sunday, it may be the only choice.
This article has been updated with news on Elena Delle Donne’s MRI results.