With Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne hurt, Sun even WNBA Finals

10:26 PM ET

Mechelle VoepelespnW.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

WASHINGTON — Shortly after locking up the Washington Mystics’ second consecutive trip to the WNBA Finals, Elena Delle Donne talked about being relieved going into the championship series healthy.

But on Tuesday, the Mystics — like last year — had to make do in a WNBA playoff game without the two-time league MVP.

And now the WNBA Finals are tied 1-1, as the Connecticut Sun took advantage of Delle Donne’s absence for most of the night, winning 99-87 to take Game 2 at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.

The 6-foot-5 Delle Donne, the MVP this season and in 2015, played just 3 minutes, 28 seconds of the first quarter, and then left the court for good with back spasms, as reported by ESPN’s Holly Rowe. Mystics coach Mike Thibault said Delle Donne, who suffered a back injury while attempting her first shot, would undergo an MRI on her back on Wednesday. Game 3 is Sunday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

“Didn’t look good,” Thibault said. “I didn’t look forward to having four days between games. But right now that looks like a benefit that we didn’t have at the start of the series.”

Elena Delle Donne left early in the first quarter with back spasms. Her status is unknown for Game 3, but the series doesn’t resume until Sunday. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

All season — in fact, ever since she came to the Mystics in 2017 after pushing for a trade from Chicago — Delle Donne has talked up her teammates’ abilities.

Tuesday, they had a chance to put on their own show, and they did that pretty well. But Delle Donne and the much-improved defensive game she has developed during her time in Washington were missed Tuesday. Jonquel Jones, the Sun’s 6-foot-6 forward/center, made the most of it, finishing with 32 points and 18 rebounds, the first 30-15 game in WNBA Finals history.

Jones’ rebounds were evenly split between offense and defense. Sunday, Jones had six rebounds, but none were on the offensive end.

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“Elena herself is one of the better defensive rebounders in the league,” Thibault said. “You’re not going to hold Jonquel off the [offensive glass] the whole series, but she got zero in that [first] game.

“If you watch the tape, Elena was almost textbook in her block-outs on Jonquel. Tonight, I thought we were trying to rebound with our head under the rim, and you don’t get very many defensive rebounds that way. If you’re pushed under and you’re standing, you’re basically having to reach behind you to rebound. That’s not a good position to be in.”

The Mystics were able to tie the score 76-76 on Kristi Toliver’s floater in the lane with 8:14 left in the game. But then the Sun went on a 6-0 run and were able to maintain their lead the rest of the way. Emma Meesseman led the Mystics with 23 points — tied for the second-most by any player off the bench in WNBA Finals history — and eight rebounds.

“We lost this game on defense,” Meesseman said. “We have to rebound, we have to communicate, and play better one-on-one.

“That second when you see [Delle Donne] go off the court so early, you don’t want that to happen. But I think we’re all professional enough to just flip the switch and keep fighting. Because things like this happen all the time in sports. I don’t want to say we’re used to it, but I think we’re always prepared for that to happen.”

Jonquel Jones (32 points, 18 rebounds) had the first 30-15 game in the WNBA Finals. Her 32 points tied for the fifth-most in a game in WNBA Finals history. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Delle Donne led the Mystics with 22 points in Sunday’s 95-86 Game 1 victory. She spoke to the media Saturday and Monday but didn’t indicate she was having any physical issues. She was limited in practice Monday. Thibault said that Delle Donne has been dealing with some tightness in her back in recent weeks, but it has been responding well to treatment.

Injury and illness are the only things that have really slowed Delle Donne in her basketball career, even dating back to her dominant days in college at Delaware. She dealt with Lyme disease while with the Blue Hens, and the symptoms have sometimes flared up again in her pro career.

In 2014, Delle Donne helped lead Chicago on a playoff run, but she had back issues that greatly limited her in the WNBA Finals.

Last year, she suffered a bone bruise in her left knee in Game 2 of the semifinal series against Atlanta. She missed Game 3, but returned for the fourth and fifth games, helping the Mystics reach their first WNBA Finals.

Once there, Delle Donne’s mobility was compromised, but she played in all three games. The Seattle Storm, already the favorites, swept the Mystics.

This season, she missed only three regular-season games: for lingering knee issues and a broken nose.

Now the Mystics will have to see if she can return by Sunday’s Game 3 in Connecticut.

As for the Sun, though, they are focused on themselves. They felt they played well enough to win Game 1, and wanted to clean up a few things on defense. Thibault praised the Sun’s effort, and said his team would need to match that Sunday, whether or not Delle Donne was on the floor.

Connecticut coach Curt Miller said his team could have gotten sidetracked by Delle Donne’s absence, but that didn’t happen.

“We’ve had situations before like this when great players have gone down in games, and there’s a real tendency to relax,” Miller said. “There’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, maybe things are going to be easier.’

“This is the benefit of having a core group that’s been together for four years, is that we didn’t have to address it. We know how talented they are. A credit to Delle Donne’s health this year and her well-documented strength addition. But this franchise has played stretches without her before. So we knew that we weren’t going to get an easy break just because she was out.”

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