Can the Washington Mystics win Game 3 without Elena Delle Donne?

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Updated: October 5, 2019


Will Elena Delle Donne be healthy enough to play in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals? That’s the biggest question before the best-of-five championship series resumes Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Regardless, the Washington Mystics must be prepared to play without Delle Donne, the WNBA MVP. Our panel — ESPN analysts Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson, ESPN.com’s D’Arcy Maine and Mechelle Voepel and The Undefeated’s Sean Hurd — breaks down who needs to step up and what we might expect as both teams try to take the lead in the Finals.

Who has to step forward on defense if Elena Delle Donne doesn’t play or isn’t at 100%?

Maine: If there ever was a time to post a GIF of Jonquel Jones waving or taunting, this would be it. Jones took advantage of Delle Donne’s absence with 32 points and an absolutely dominating performance on the glass on both sides of the floor. Emma Meesseman was the primary defender on Jones and struggled; Jones scored 21 points when matched up against Meesseman. Meesseman has been a major offensive contributor for the Mystics this season, but she can’t carry the load on both ends. LaToya Sanders and Aerial Powers also defended Jones during shorter periods in the game, and perhaps a rotating combination is the best way to go, until one of them can establish that they are up to the task.

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Lobo: The Mystics’ top defensive priority going into Game 3 is to do a better job on the defensive glass. Both Jones and Alyssa Thomas feasted on the offensive boards, combining for 15 of the Sun’s 17 offensive rebounds. Jones has been able to get rebounds over everyone not named EDD. Both Meesseman and Tianna Hawkins will need to focus on boxing her out in Game 3. Limiting Thomas is just as difficult, especially since Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud end up defending her on the weak side when the Mystics use their 3-player switch for on-ball screens. Neither is strong enough to keep Thomas off the boards. Washington’s bigs will need to box out, and its guards will all need to crash the glass. But will that limit its running game and affect its desired pace?

Voepel: Washington’s LaToya Sanders was the person who seemed most disappointed in her defensive effort in Game 2. “We didn’t get the job done,” she said afterward. “I didn’t play well defensively and on the boards. I have to be better for the team.” At 6-foot-2, Sanders gives up size inside to a player such as the 6-foot-6 Jones, but that’s something she is used to. Sanders has quickness and the ability to defend inside and on the perimeter. They Mystics will need more from her on Sunday. They’ll also need their guards to be a little better at trying to deny Jones the ball, and — like Rebecca said — in crashing the boards themselves.

Robinson: Washington also needs Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud — two players who were on the WNBA All-Defensive team — to be disruptive. We often think that if a player like Jones goes off, it’s her matchup who has to defend better, but that’s not necessarily the case. If you can disrupt other players in the offense, you can take away vision, push the offense out and throw Connecticut off in other ways that make the Sun less effective in using Jones.

How should the Mystics try to defend Jonquel Jones?

Lobo: Keeping the ball out of Jones’ hands is the best bet to slow her down. Sanders has been effective slipping around her and deflecting entry passes at times. And the Mystics’ guards have had varied success limiting the Sun guards’ vision and entry passing. When double-teams came in Game 1, Jones moved the ball well, finishing with four assists. But you can’t double-team a rebound, and she had nine offensive boards in Game 2. Washington can live with her getting 15 field goal attempts. The Mystics can’t give up the offensive boards and let her attempt 24 field goals like in Game 2.

Stopping Jonquel Jones — who had 32 points and 18 rebounds, including a WNBA Finals-record nine offensive boards, in Game 2 — might be the hardest task facing the Mystics if they don’t have Elena Delle Donne. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Voepel: Jones also was 3-of-7 on 3-pointers in Game 2. She has been hitting from long range all season; she had 43 treys in the regular season, and she has seven in the playoffs. It might come down to whether Atkins, Cloud and Powers can really impact the game defensively and deny Jones the ball.

Hurd: And when a shot goes up, Sanders, Hawkins, Powers and Meesseman need to find Jones if they don’t want to be on the wrong side of another historic performance.

Robinson: Another way to slow down Jones is for Washington to have better offensive possessions. The Mystics didn’t adjust fast enough to Delle Donne not being on the floor. They became one-dimensional and played too much one-on-one. If they get better offense and hit shots, or at least get shots out of their offense, that gives Sanders and others a chance to get matched up in defensive transition and keep Jones and others from getting deep post position — which is also prime rebounding position. In Game 4 of the semifinals, we saw Sanders against Liz Cambage force shots off the lane. Washington is more effective doubling down when that happens.

LaToya Sanders is looking to make a bigger impact for the Mystics in Game 3. “I didn’t play well defensively and on the boards,” the forward/center said after Tuesday’s loss. Brad Mills-USA TODAY SportsWhat do Washington’s guards have to do differently?

Robinson: Washington’s guards have to slow down the pace of their half-court offense and move the ball like they have all year. They allowed Connecticut to speed up the game, which led to rushed offense. You are not going to “out-athlete” Connecticut one-on-one, and Washington relied too heavily on isolation in Game 2. The Mystics can play that way sometimes, and they can score in transition, but that’s not their advantage against Connecticut.

Washington looked exhausted trying to play fast and keep up with Connecticut in Game 2. The Mystics are better in space, with multiple passes, reading defensive mistakes and making the defense pay with smart, high-IQ basketball.

Hurd: I agree with LaChina. The Mystics got a little isolation-happy in Game 2, but isos didn’t get them to the WNBA Finals. When the Mystics’ guards can establish themselves early as shooting threats, their ability to then dissect an opponent’s defense is unmatched in the league.

First Washington guard to stop the unrelenting iso play of Courtney Williams wins Finals MVP. Many have tried, many have been told, “She can’t guard me.”

Voepel: Yes, Williams is an X factor. She averaged 13.2 points in the regular season, but she is at 21.0 in five playoff games. That includes 26 and 22 points in the two Finals games against the Mystics. She also is shooting 50% from behind the arc in the postseason. Contrast that to the three regular-season meetings between the teams, when Williams had 23 points in one game but was held to six and five in the other two. Limiting Jones after she tore up the Mystics in Game 2 is a big deal, but the Sun also get a lot of their momentum from Williams. The Mystics’ guards must have a better effort in trying to make Williams work harder for her shots.

“We need to lock down on the defensive end,” Cloud said. “And our play on the other end, we can’t sit back. We have to attack them as much as they attack us.”

Courtney Williams averaged 13.2 points per game in the regular season, but she hasn’t scored fewer than 15 in all five of the Sun’s playoff games — with at least 22 points in three of them. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Lobo: Curt Miller told our TV crew before the Finals started that Cloud was the key to the series. Her ability to score will be huge in Game 3.

A ton of credit goes to his Connecticut defense. Jasmine Thomas has done an incredible job on Kristi Toliver all series. And Miller’s decision to put Shekinna Stricklen on Cloud in Game 2 allowed Williams to disrupt Atkins, after Atkins took advantage of the Stricklen matchup in Game 1.

But it comes down to this: Washington’s guards have to make shots, limit turnovers and attack so they can get to the free throw line. Washington was so good offensively this year because it shot a higher field goal percentage than everyone else, had the fewest turnovers and made its free throws. To beat them, you generally have to get more field goal attempts. Connecticut had 12 more field goal attempts in Game 2, while also outshooting them 50% to 47%.

Alyssa Thomas has been a rock for Connecticut. What’s the biggest thing that she brings to the Sun?

Lobo: Alyssa Thomas has been the toughest player in the 2019 playoffs. She is usually the strongest player on the court and uses her physicality to set the tone for the Sun. Coaches often talk about “getting punched in the mouth.” Well, AT does the punching. Every. Single. Time. Down. The. Floor.

Maine: Is this a trick question? What doesn’t Alyssa Thomas bring to the Sun? It’s hard to pick just one thing, because she really can do whatever they need for her to do and has played EVERY SINGLE MINUTE of the Finals. Thomas is the ultimate utility player; if the team needs an offensive spark, a rebound, a LeBron James-inspired spin move or someone to crash the paint, she can do it, despite torn labral tears in both shoulders. And her mental toughness and competitive nature — she literally refuses to quit — might be her best asset. Her teammates love her and feed off of her energy. As Courtney Williams said during the semifinals: “Man, AT is a dog. Having someone like that on my team who can come out and play through injury and just give us that toughness, it’s crazy, it’s amazing. We need that.”

Sun forward Alyssa Thomas has played every minute of both WNBA Finals games. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Hurd: It’s her ability to single-handedly disrupt an opponent’s momentum. In Game 2, when Washington would make a run, it seemed like Thomas was either driving the ball straight at the teeth of the Washington defense on the ensuing possession or fighting for second-chance opportunities for her teammates (six of her 12 rebounds were on the offensive end). With that kind of relentless energy and presence on the floor, Thomas might never see the bench for Connecticut in this series.

Voepel: Thomas is a whirling dervish, but her rebounding has been especially effective. She is averaging 9.2 rebounds in the playoffs, as opposed to 7.8 in the regular season. Thomas’ pure strength is part of her rebounding ability, as is her fearlessness for mixing it up in the paint whenever she has to. And she’ll dive to the floor too. The Sun took 12 more shots than the Mystics in Game 2, and the work on the boards by Thomas and Jones was a big part of that.

Can the Mystics win if Elena Delle Donne is unable to play?

Voepel: Yes, if they are able to hit enough perimeter shots and stay closer to even on the boards with the Sun. Not having Delle Donne puts even more of a premium on every offensive possession for the Mystics.

Maine: To quote the great basketball philosopher Kevin Garnett, “Anything is possible!” The Mystics have a number of weapons not named Delle Donne, and having had a few days of making adjustments to prepare for her potential absence, they should look much better than they did Tuesday after she left the game. If they can figure out a strong defensive strategy, they definitely have a chance to win.

Robinson: Yes. Mike Thibault is a great coach, and Washington is a very talented and well-coached team. I also think if the Mystics play inspired — now that they know of Delle Donne’s injury — that could be a powerful motivator.

Hurd: If you’re going to lose the league MVP in the middle of the WNBA Finals, one of the next best possible options is having the top bench in the league. Washington’s bench led the WNBA with 30.5 points per game, 5.4 more than any other team. You can slot Powers or Meesseman in the rotation and that starting five would still be a handful for most teams in the league.

Luckily for the Mystics, the two biggest X factors on their bench, Hawkins and Powers, are both having career seasons. We saw what Washington was able to do in Game 2 in the absence of Delle Donne. The fact that this is a tough call speaks volumes to Washington’s depth. But if you add home advantage to a healthy Connecticut roster, it’s tough to pick against the Sun here.



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