Elena Delle Donne had a peculiar parting comment after the Washington Mystics defeated the WNBA-leading Connecticut Sun on the road Wednesday night: She told ESPN’s LaChina Robinson that she was hoping to feel better next game.
It’s a normal enough statement, especially since Delle Donne has been struggling to manage an energy-sapping illness since late May. But the Mystics’ star forward didn’t just have an okay game Wednesday. She dropped 36 points on the Sun, logging a new season high for both points and minutes played, which also were 36.
It was her second-highest scoring regular season game since coming to Washington, falling just short of a 37-point outing against Seattle in September. She hit all eight of her free throw attempts. She had 22 points at halftime.
“That was more about being in shape,” Delle Donne laughed in a phone interview Thursday, explaining her comment to Robinson. “I feel very healthy, even after yesterday’s game playing way more minutes than I expected to. I still feel good, just hoping now to get back in shape.”
Delle Donne’s feelings encapsulate the entire team’s wishes as the Mystics prepare to settle in for a much-needed stretch of home games, which starts Friday against second-place Los Angeles (6-2). Various injuries and illnesses have left Washington shorthanded for the past three weeks or so, but now all but guard Tayler Hill, who is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, appear to have their major ailments under control.
The Mystics (6-4) play six of their next seven games at Capital One Arena. Like Delle Donne, they’re feeling healthy and playing good basketball. They hope to use the homestand to get in better shape — both physically and in the league standings — before they hit the road for the last two weeks in July.
“It’s huge coming up,” Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said Thursday. “It’s a chance to get an edge if we’re playing well. The month of July is not going to be kind to us, so any cushion we can get will be huge.”
Notching a 95-91 win over first-place Connecticut (7-2) was a good start, even if the Mystics blew a 30-point lead before rallying for the victory.
On Wednesday, Thibault played a small starting five for the second game in a row, with Natasha Cloud at point guard, Kristi Toliver at shooting guard, 6-foot-3 LaToya Sanders at center and rookie Ariel Atkins at forward alongside Delle Donne.
Starting Cloud helped push the pace to get shots in transition and opened up Toliver more than usual. The Maryland graduate had 25 points Wednesday, including six three-pointers, on a season-high 17 field goal attempts.
Thibault said that after searching for the right lineup most of the season, he had no reason to adjust this one any time soon, other than injury. Atkins landed hard on the heel of her left hand for the second time this season Wednesday and had to come out of the game. She had X-rays taken after the initial injury that came back negative but was having more taken Thursday just in case.
“I saw more of a commitment, at least for part of the game, on the defensive end and the tempo of the game,” Thibault said of his lineup. “We’ve got a ways to go still. I would say we’re kind of back to where I thought we were maybe in that first week before things started falling apart.”
Thibault said playing Delle Donne for 36 minutes and Sanders, who is working to manage anemia, for 28 was just about as far as he could push his starters.
“I’m trying to play it by feel,” he said, “I was about to take Elena out for a bit, then we got two breaks in the action that kind of saved it last night, so we’ll see. I thought, given the circumstances, she handled it pretty well.”
In addition to her 36 points, Delle Donne tied Sanders and Monique Currie with six rebounds.
Washington is as confident as it has been all season now that its lineup is relatively healthy and has the chance to practice and play at home for the next few weeks. Delle Donne reminded her team Wednesday that it had been in the same position last year — leading Connecticut by double digits on the road before giving up a lead. It lost that game.
This year, while Delle Donne was out, the Mystics lost to the Sun by 24 points June 3.
“Just being able to stay gritty and find a win no matter what, it gives us a lot of confidence going into tomorrow’s game,” Delle Donne said. “Just knowing we can play with anyone as long as we play with a lot of energy and play our best game. We were headed in that direction of playing awesome basketball, and we’ve had a lot going on with different illness with different people with our lineups coming in and out. Finally, we’re starting to settle back in.”