Bionic Elena: MVP Delle Donne braces up for Mystics final push to first championship

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 1:  Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (11) during player introductions during game two of  the WNBA Finals . (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne said her back injury is worse than the knee last year. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Elena Delle Donne’s spot in the Washington Mystics’ starting five on Sunday was a surprise to everyone, especially her Delaware state-mate Joe Biden. It seemed all but assured the reigning MVP would spend Game 3 of the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun on the bench with a herniated disk that’s pinching a nerve in her back.

“She’s got some guts,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said, via the Washington Post, after the Mystics came within one win of their first title in franchise history.

It would also be the first championship for Thibault, who has been in this spot four times including last year. In three of them now, his star player has gone down with an injury. The 30-year-old Delle Donne is playing in her third Finals, and in all three she’s had body-related setbacks.

This time, though, the Mystics are 40 minutes away from hoisting the trophy. And it will fall on their bionic MVP to assist, even if she isn’t 100 percent, even if she doesn’t put up 20 points, even if she can’t drive the way she could 10 days ago.

How bad is Delle Donne’s back injury?

Delle Donne told reporters Monday during media availability that her back pain is worse than the bone bruise she had for the 2018 WNBA Finals against the Seattle Storm. She said it’s all-consuming and getting rest is difficult with only two comfortable positions. She’s working on breathing and wants to be smart on the court so she can best push her team to a title.

“I’m trying to do whatever’s possible to just be out there,” Delle Donne said. “ ... this hurts more, yeah. Knees I feel like they’re achy, they hurt, but you can push through them. Backs, it’s like you take one wrong step and it feels like you’re paralyzed. This is worse.”

She also had back issues and played limited minutes when in the 2014 Finals with the Chicago Sky.

Delle Donne said she asked for Thibault to sub her out at times in Game 3. In the first half, she spent off minutes on a bike staying loose or getting worked on by the physical therapist. In the second half, she spent more time near the bench but never once sat down. Afterward, the MVP stumbled and tripped up the stairs to her post-game media availability, but recovered and cracked a joke. From D’Arcy Maine at ESPN:

"Well, that's pretty much how my life is going right now," Delle Donne said to no one in particular as she shook her head and sighed.

There is no official word on Delle Donne’s status for Game 4 on Tuesday. But from Sunday’s showing, if she feels at least OK during shootaround she’ll suit up and do what it takes.

Delle Donne’s will, not body, at 100 percent

The veteran is clearly not in MVP form, yet her mere presence gave the Mystics, who looked shocked and lost in her Game 2 absence, a boost of confidence. Delle Donne had 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, going 3-of-4 from deep. Her one dribble-drive of the game, which put the kibosh on the Sun’s momentous rally in the fourth quarter, showed she’s a long way from being 100 percent.

Delle Donne averaged 19.5 points per game during the regular season and 21.3 points in the first four games of the playoffs before the back acted up. She had been dealing with back issues recently, even wearing a wrap in at least one semifinal game, and had it grab on her after an early layup.

Teammates told reporters after Sunday’s game it made them battle harder seeing how much she was putting into getting a title not only for herself, but for them and the organization.

“I mean, what more can you ask?,” Natasha Cloud said.

Bionic Elena: One year, three braces for MVP

Delle Donne suffered a deep contusion in her left knee during the 2018 semifinals against the Atlanta Dream that looked far worse at the time. The Mystics won and the star played through the pain in the Finals, but the team was swept by the Seattle Storm.

She missed the 2019 season opener against the Sun after jamming that same knee and missed more games to rehab it. She has played with a brace on it all year.

In July, she took a shoulder to the face in the opening seconds of a game and suffered a broken nose. She missed a few games and returned with a full face mask to protect it while it healed. It became a bit of a fashion statement with Washington Wizards players and fans at the arena.

Delle Donne even thanked the manufacturers of these braces after being awarded league MVP for the second time in her career. She earned her first in 2015 with the Sky at the age of 26.

Another shoutout will have to go to the makers of her back brace wrap, which she wore in Game 3 and will be suiting up in again.

You do what it takes to win a title and Delle Donne is living up to that 100-fold.

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