The prognosis for the 2015 WNBA MVP remains uncertain, although teammates hinted Delle Donne would play with Washington facing the prospect of having its season end one round short of the finals for the second straight year.
“Yeah, I think she’s going to thug it out, especially with an elimination game,” guard Natasha Cloud said. “She’s a soldier. She’s going to try. We’ll see how it goes, but that’s up to her, a game-time decision.”
The Mystics had been clinging to the faint chance Delle Donne would be able to play in Game 3, but the bone bruise she suffered in Tuesday night’s Game 2 loss at McCamish Pavilion forced out the first-team all-WNBA selection.
Without Delle Donne for Washington’s first home game of the semifinals, Washington fell behind by double figures in the fourth quarter and didn’t have the firepower to complete a comeback. Delle Donne is averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds in the playoffs this year.
“You can either feel sorry for yourself and just show up,” Coach Mike Thibault said of his message to the team, “or you can build on the good stuff from last night and shoot the ball a little better and get a win and go back [to Atlanta] and play a Game 5.”
Thibault juggled his lineup significantly to try to compensate for Delle Donne’s absence, moving Aerial Powers to power forward for the first time. Tianna Hawkins started at power forward Friday night, but Powers was part of a smaller rotation that sparked a rally in the third quarter.
Powers scored 18 points, matching a season high, to lead the Mystics. Rookie Ariel Atkins added 17 points, playing considerable minutes in a four-guard set with LaToya Sanders at center.
The Mystics shot 36 percent in Game 3, with the starting backcourt of Cloud and Kristi Toliver struggling in particular. Toliver, one of the most efficient three-point shooters in the league, went 1 for 9 from beyond the arc and finished with seven points, although she did contribute a game-high six assists.
Toliver was second on the Mystics in scoring this season, averaging 13.9 points, and shares the franchise playoff record of 32 points in a game with Delle Donne.
Delle Donne, who finished third this season in MVP voting, set the Mystics’ single-season record for scoring average this year at 20.7 points per game and had three straight double-doubles in the playoffs after eight such games during the regular season. The Mystics are 1-4 this regular season and postseason in games she has not played.
“The name of the game when it was invented is put the ball through the basket, and if you don’t, everything else is irrelevant in some sense,” Thibault said. “I mean, you’ve got to play great defense. We played pretty good defense for good stretches of the game.”
Washington limited the Dream to 40 percent shooting but managed one field goal over the final two minutes. It also committed 13 turnovers, its most in four playoff games, with Powers responsible for two. Still, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 WNBA draft went to the basket aggressively and made all eight of her free throws.
Powers joined the Mystics in late July when Thibault dealt Tayler Hill and a second-round pick in 2019 to the Dallas Wings in exchange for the 2016 all-rookie selection.
The Mystics’ undersized lineup that included Powers, Toliver, Atkins and rookie Myisha Hines-Allen had barely practiced together heading into Game 3 but spent a significant portion of Saturday’s practice refining their familiarity with one another.
“We all know, yeah, if we lose this game, we’re done,” Powers said. “But that’s not our mentality. We’re not going in to not lose the game. We’re going in to win the game. We’re going into the game prepared, a little bit more prepared than we were yesterday, honestly, because no one knew I was going to be playing the 4. I didn’t even know I was going to be playing the 4.
“Today I got more reps at the 4, defensively and offensively.”