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Elena Delle Donne flashes familiar form as Mystics roll in opener

What to know from Washington’s 84-70 win over the Fever

Mystics guard Rui Machida, left, and Elena Delle Donne guard Fever forward NaLyssa Smith during Friday night's season opener. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Elena Delle Donne emerged from the darkness, stepping through white billowing smoke for her pregame introduction. Dressed head to toe in white — jersey, shorts, sneakers, socks and compression tights — the two-time MVP made her way to the floor to play in a Washington Mystics season opener for the first time since 2018.

Delle Donne’s long-anticipated return, after she played just three games the past two seasons, came in front of a sellout crowd at Entertainment and Sports Arena on Friday night and did not disappoint. She scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds as the Mystics defeated the Indiana Fever, 84-70, to open the WNBA season.

So does a six-time all-star and Olympic gold medalist get nervous after such a long layoff?

My shot looked like I had nerves,” Delle Donne said after shooting 8 for 16. “I didn’t feel too nervous, but I was struggling a little bit to, like, get in a flow and to trust in my legs. So I guess I might call that a little bit of nerves or just it’s been a while.”

Elena Delle Donne is competing against herself now

All eyes were on Delle Donne after she missed most of the past two seasons in the wake of two back surgeries. She played just three games in 2021 but still wasn’t healthy. Delle Donne spent long, torturous days rehabbing, at times unable to sit through dinner with her wife or pick up items around the house. She has learned to walk differently and play differently. Even after the game, she had two hours of rehab maintenance.

On the floor, she still had an unmistakable presence. The 6-foot-5 wing got up and down the court throughout the night without any issue, banging in the post on offense and crashing the boards on defense. She closed space quickly to record a pair of blocks and caused many in the crowd — and on her own bench — to hold their breath when she hit the ground as others dived for a loose ball around her legs. Delle Donne bounced up without any hesitancy and ran upcourt.

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Coach Mike Thibault played her a bit more than he wanted (nearly 30 minutes), but she moved well enough to alleviate any physical concerns.

Thibault has built in days off for Delle Donne throughout the season, and she will not travel to Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Lynx but is scheduled to play at home Tuesday against the Las Vegas Aces.

Here’s what else to know about the Mystics’ win:

Dominant first

The Mystics stormed out of the gate in the first quarter, going up 15 and never trailing the rest of the way. The team closed the quarter on a 16-2 run. Seven different players scored in the first quarter as the Mystics shot a blistering 75 percent from the field.

That set the tone for the entire night. The Fever got within six points with 5:30 left in the game, but the Mystics answered with a 13-0 run to put the game away.

Ariel Atkins finished with 15 points and three assists, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough added 10 points, three assists, three steals and two rebounds.

“It’s a good start,” Thibault said. “Thought we came out really aggressively and set a good tone in the first half. Kind of flat third quarter where we settled for a lot of long jump shots after you putting them in foul trouble in the first half and attacking the basket.

“You get four people in double figures and another one close. The ball moved with 20 assists and low turnovers. That's a lot of good things.”

Aggressive Cloud

Natasha Cloud has repeatedly proclaimed during training camp that she’s a shooter. The Mystics point guard has long been known as a vocal leader, table-setter and defensive stalwart. This offseason, though, was spent on working on her shot. She finished with 17 points (6 of 13 from the field) and six assists and finished the night doing the Tootsie Roll dance on the sideline after the game was put away late in the fourth quarter.

She had a highlight moment in the second quarter when she used a step-back dribble to drop rookie Lexie Hull to the floor. The quarter ended shortly after Cloud hit a pull-up jumper and jogged back on defense with both palms raised to the sky reminiscent of Michael Jordan without the shrug.

“I’m a dog. That’s me, all season,” Cloud said. “I was aggressive. If I’m not, then I let my teammates down by not being aggressive. So that’s my mind-set every game.

“I’m going to continue to be me but also be a playmaker. I’ve got to be able to score for us this season, so I’m trying to be more consistent with that.”

Debuts

Fans finally got to see free agent signee Rui Machida and No. 3 overall pick Shakira Austin. Machida made her WNBA debut after starring in Japan and leading the national team to the silver medal in the Olympics last summer. She set a single-game Olympic record with 18 assists against France in the semifinals. Machida played just under 17 minutes and finished with two points and two assists. Her lone basket came on a dribble-drive scoop layup down the lane.

Austin played 11:39, scored three points and grabbed three rebounds. The former Riverdale Baptist star and Maryland Terrapin was active on the defensive end and played the deciding minutes in the fourth quarter after Thibault said he simply liked how she was playing.

Roster moves

All WNBA teams were required to file final rosters at 5 p.m. Thursday, but those rosters are far from final. The Mystics were a perfect example of that. The team applied for and was granted a roster hardship spot because only nine players were available with Elizabeth Williams overseas and Alysha Clark (foot) out. The team signed 6-foot-2 forward Stephanie Jones.

The team also claimed 6-1 guard Kennedy Burke off waivers, and her contract is temporarily suspended as she finishes her overseas commitment. With the signing of Burke, former Maryland guard Katie Benzan was released.

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