Elena Delle Donne was having another huge game, and the Washington Mystics were on the verge of taking command of this WNBA semifinal series.
Then, one of the league’s biggest stars crumpled to the court with what looked like a serious knee injury.
Her teammates could hardly bear to look as she writhed in pain.
Just like that, the playoffs took a gut-wrenching turn.
Alex Bentley came off the bench to score 21 points and the Atlanta Dream evened the series at one game apiece with a 78-75 victory Tuesday night. But this contest will be remembered for what happened with just over 3 minutes remaining and the Mystics clinging to a 70-68 lead.
Delle Donne stumbled on a drive to the basket and collapsed to the court, clutching her left knee . The entire Mystics team raced to her side at the opposite end of the court, some turning away in dismay when they saw her anguish. She had to be helped to the locker room, unable to put any weight on her knee.
Washington coach Mike Thibault said he wasn’t sure about the seriousness of the injury, but a pained expression at the postgame news conference revealed his concern.
“It’s an emotional time,” he said. “We don’t know what Elena’s status is going to be. Obviously, she’s a huge factor in what we do.”
Indeed, Delle Donne turned in a dominating performance: 27 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal, giving the Mystics a chance to take control of the best-of-five series with their second straight road win .
Instead, it’s all tied up as the teams head to Washington for Game 3 on Friday night.
Delle Donne is hopeful she’ll be able to play.
“I’m walking,” she said in comments provided by Washington’s media relations staff. “The swelling isn’t terrible, so I’ll go home and see our doctors and see what they say.”
If it turns out to be serious, the series will be deprived of its two biggest stars. The Dream already was missing its longtime leader, Angel McCoughtry, who went down late in the season with a knee injury and cheered on her teammates from the bench.
Dream coach Nicki Collen is expecting Delle Donne to play unless she hears otherwise.
“I wouldn’t count her out. She seemed to be walking around just fine after the game,” Collen said.
If Delle Donne can’t return?
“It does change the game plan, of course,” Collen replied. “You’d be taking one of the best five players in the world out of the equation. But we’ll prepare like she’s going to play.”
After Delle Donne’s injury, Washington struggled to create offensive chances down the stretch. A traveling call gave the ball to Atlanta, which went ahead for good, 76-74, on Elizabeth Williams layup off an inbounds pass. Ariel Atkins missed a 3-pointer, Washington turned it over again and Kristi Toliver’s long 3 at the buzzer bounced off the rim, allowing the Dream to hold on.
Bentley provided a spark for the Dream, especially after Brittney Sykes went to the bench with four fouls early in the third quarter and the Mystics pushed out to a 10-point lead, the biggest for either team. Bentley hit 8 of 14 shots, one of them on a flailing drive that really got the small home crowd fired up.
BENTLEY’S MIXED BAG
While certainly a big reason for Atlanta’s victory, Bentley was kicking herself after the game for turning it over five times.
The Dream had 16 turnovers in all.
“Honestly, I was not happy with my decision-making down the stretch,” she said. “I definitely have to do a better job with my assist-to-turnover ratio and shot selection. But my team and my coaching staff put me in great positions to score and be aggressive.”
The Mystics trailed almost the entire opening half, finally claiming their first lead on Delle Donne’s pull-up jumper with 2:54 left in the second quarter. Washington went to the break with a 36-34 lead. … Tiffany Hayes scored 17 points for the Dream, while Williams and Jessica Breland added 10 apiece. … Toliver finished with 16 points but went only 1 of 5 from 3-point range. The Mystics finished 6 of 20 beyond the arc. … Delle Donne was basically a one-woman team on the boards for the Mystics, grabbing more than half of their 26 rebounds. The Dream finished with a commanding 44-26 rebounding edge, led by Breland (14) and Williams (11).
MAKE ROOM IN THE TROPHY CASE
Collen picked up another coach of the year award.
The WNBA recognized her as its top coach for 2018, adding to the honor she picked up last week from The Associated Press after leading the Dream to a franchise-record 23 wins during the regular season.
Collen wasn’t the only member of Atlanta’s leadership team to be honored Tuesday. First-year general manager Chris Sienko was selected as the WNBA’s executive of the year.
Collen is the second Dream coach to receive the league’s coach of the year award. Marynell Meadors claimed the honor in 2009.
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