The reigning league MVP finished with 21 points, a team-high nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal without committing a turnover in an 89-78 win against the Connecticut Sun to deliver Coach Mike Thibualt, also the general manager responsible for bringing Delle Donne to the District, his first championship.
“Never listen to the crowd, because people thought I was crazy,” Delle Donne said, referring to the doubters, amid a rousing celebration in the locker room between sips of bubbly. “Just belief in myself, belief in this city, belief in coach’s dream and just trusting the process.
“Kristi [Toliver] and I came here — I believe they hadn’t made the playoffs [the previous season] — and we knew there was a special team and coach had a dream, and we believed in it.”
Delle Donne’s teammates spoke repeatedly during the series of the star’s mental wherewithal and pain tolerance. In the postgame celebration, teammate Natasha Cloud revealed that Delle Donne wasn’t playing with just one herniated disk, as was reported, but three. Her ability to play through such pain marveled teammates throughout the series. In the fourth quarter of a back-and-forth game, Delle Donne put the Mystics ahead to stay at 72-70 with a signature turnaround jumper off the glass with 5:10 remaining at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.
The 6-foot-5 forward scored that go-ahead basket over Alyssa Thomas, the engine all season for the Sun who has become among the most rugged post defenders in the league.
Moments later, Delle Donne used the same move, virtually unblockable since she mastered it years ago, to extend the margin to 78-72 with 3:34 to play, pushing through discomfort she described recently as feeling like “having a pole” up her back.
“I always felt she had grit. It’s just that sometime you need the opportunity to display it,” Thibault said. “You’ve got to want to play through something. You’ve got to love your teammates so much that you play for the person next to you.”
This was a team Thibault assembled in his vision of the modern-day style of basketball, incorporating ball movement, three-pointers and advanced analytics, then finding players who most capably filled those roles, including acquiring Toliver, a WNBA Finals champion in 2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks, not long after Delle Donne.
Thibault’s vision in constructing a championship contender began to unfold shortly after the 2016 season, when the Mystics failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since he took over as coach and general manager three years earlier. His target to trigger the reboot was Delle Donne, then with the Chicago Sky.
The 2014 MVP announced she would consider sitting out the 2017 season if a deal to move her could not be reached, citing a strong desire to be closer to her home in Delaware. Thibault sensed an opportunity that could dramatically alter the fortunes of the franchise.
When the two spoke initially, Delle Donne, in an interview with The Washington Post several months later, revealed she knew immediately the nation’s capital was where she wanted to close out her career.
The potential hang-up to the deal was Delle Donne’s status as a restricted free agent, meaning the Sky would be able to match any offer.
But after weeks of negotiation, the sides completed a trade in which the Mystics sent the No. 2 pick in 2017, center Stefanie Dolson and guard Kahleah Copper to Chicago for Delle Donne, who in her introductory news conference made certain to address bringing a title to the District.
“Yeah, she stepped up,” Toliver said of Delle Donne. “I asked her before the game, ‘Will you be playing like Delly?’ She was like, ‘Yes, open up the playbook,’ so she was ready to rock and roll, and I’m just really, really proud of her and her heart and her pride.”
All of those intangibles rose to the surface in Delle Donne’s third WNBA Finals in which she played hurt.
Last season, she suffered a deep knee left knee bruise in the WNBA semifinals on the road against the Atlanta Dream but managed to play on, sparking the Mystics on a run to the Finals, only to lose to the veteran-led Seattle Storm in a three-game sweep.
In 2014, Delle Donne played in just 16 regular season games with the Chicago Sky as she battled Lyme disease, a disorder she has had since her college days at Delaware, before suiting up for all nine playoff games, including another loss via sweep in the Finals.
After injuring her back in this year’s WNBA Finals, Delle Donne spent five straight days in between Games 2 and 3 receiving treatment, turning to meditation for pain management and enduring restless nights trying to get comfortable with pillows propped beneath her spine.
Still, she averaged 16.8 points and 7.5 rebounds in the four games she played at least 26 minutes in the series.
“Last year was terrible the way it ended,” Delle Donne said. “But we were really able to bounce back from it and use it as motivation, so, so proud of this team and how everyone has developed.”