Elena Delle Donne playing against the Indiana Fever on May 20, 2018
Elena Delle Donne playing against the Indiana Fever on May 20, 2018 Credit: KEITH ALLISON/FLICKR

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On Feb. 2, 2017, Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault announced that the team had acquired 2015 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne in a trade with the Chicago Sky. Just five days later, he announced that 2013 All-Star and 2016 WNBA champion Kristi Toliver had signed with the Mystics in free agency.

Nineteen months later, it’s clear that was the biggest five days in Mystics franchise history.

On Sunday afternoon at George Washington University’s Smith Center, Delle Donne and Toliverthe team’s two captainsled the Mystics to a 97-76 victory over the Atlanta Dream to force a deciding Game 5 in the WNBA semifinals. The Mystics are officially one game away from making the first WNBA finals in franchise history.

Delle Donne’s 15 points and 10 rebounds undersell the impact she had on this game. Last Tuesday night in Atlanta, with the Mystics three minutes away from taking a 2-0 lead in the series, Delle Donne slipped on the floor and inverted her as she fell. She was diagnosed with a left knee bone bruise, and was forced to miss Game 4 on Friday night in Washington, D.C., which the Mystics lost, 81-76. She’s spent the last five days rehabbing around the clockmainly in hyperbaric chamber and flow tanksand after a successful warm-up on Sunday, decided that she was feeling good enough to play.

Even though she wasn’t 100 percent, and not as explosive or aggressive as she typically is, Delle Donne was a difference maker.

“Whether Delle’s on crutches, it doesn’t matter. If she’s on the floor, they have to respect her and honor her,” Toliver said in a post-game press conference. “That just changes everything for everyone.”

Even in the first quarter, when Delle Donne went scoreless, her teammates felt more at ease.

“Her presence, period, just brings a calm factor,” says rookie Ariel Atkins, the team’s second-leading scorer on the night with 19 points.

Toliver, meanwhile, led the team in scoring with 22 points, seven assists, and three steals, thanks to her best shooting night of the playoffs. But she made the most impact off the court before the game even started.

Late Saturday night, Toliver sent all 11 teammates a group text.

“It was a great text, very motivating,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen told City Paper. “Just reminding us that this is why we’re here. We have to fight. We want to get to the championship, and it’s one game right now, one game at a time.”

After the game, Toliver said she sent the text because she loves to write out her thoughts, and that she really wanted to tell her teammates what she was feeling, and how much she believes in them.

Guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (11 points, five rebounds), who is the longest-tenured Mystics player at six years, said the text message showcased Toliver’s leadership and drive to win, and gave the entire team a boost of confidence. Atkins said it pulled the team together, and made them all take a deep breath. Natasha Cloud, a fourth-year guard, said that energy was down a bit at practice yesterday, and that Toliver’s text really helped settle their nerves.

“It was huge, just to be like, ‘Everyone take a deep breath, we’re good, and there’s no other 12 people I’d rather be doing battle with.’” says Cloud.

Toliver’s motivation worked.

The Mystics went back-and-forth with the Dream for the first seven minutes of the game, but then went on an 11-2 run in the final three minutes of the first quarter, to build a 20-12 lead. They never looked back. While Delle Donne and Toliver were the leaders, everyone contributed. There were six Mystics players in double figuresall five starters, plus Ruffin-Pratt. Hines-Allen, who did not see much playing time the second half of the season, played more than 13 minutes at center because LaToya Sanders (10 points, seven rebounds) got into foul trouble, and held her own with two points, two assists, and five boards.

Leadership only works if you have people capable of following. And Thibault has surrounded his captains with a deep, dynamic, and dangerous team full of players who are capable of rising to the occasion.

Every time Atlanta went on a run, a different Mystics player would put their foot on the gas. Ruffin-Pratt made two jump-shots early in the second quarter that allowed the Mystics to build on their first-quarter momentum. Cloud hit two three pointers in the first two minutes of the third quarterincluding one on the first play of the halfto keep the Dream on their heels. When the Dream got within five points with 2:25 left in the third, Delle Donne nailed a 26-foot three pointer, which was capped off by Toliver free throws, a Sanders jumpshot, and a Toliver shot from outside the arc to finish the third quarter up by 11 points. Atkins then scored seven points in a one-minute span early in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.

On Sunday night, the Mystics simply looked unstoppable. Of course, in a series, each game tells a different story.

It won’t be easy, but the team heads into Tuesday night in Atlanta for the decisive Game 5 with confidence. Opportunities like these are exactly why Thibault, Delle Donne, and Toliver all joined forces that fateful week last February.

“I look forward to Tuesday and another challenge,” Toliver says. “It’s going to be more difficult on the road, but the message is the same: I [would] pick this team over anybody.”

Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.