Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

WNBA Playoffs: No Delle Donne, No Win for Washington, as Atlanta Takes a 2-1 Semis Lead on the Cusp of the Finals

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

WASHINGTON — If Greek tragedies do not manage to find their way into sports and somehow keep targeting teams and specific individuals, then Friday night here at George Washington University’s Smith Center might have been a moment of great joy in the WNBA playoffs semifinal round for the Washington Mystics, their superstar Elena Delle Donne, and their coach Mike Thibault.

In what would have been before a nearly sellout crowd with high energy, after capturing Game 1 in Atlanta against the Dream to temporarily steal home court advantage in the best-of-five stage leading to the finals, potentially the Mystics might have completed a 3-0 sweep to head to their first finals to complete a breakthrough competitive era since Thibault’s arrival following his jettison weeks earlier from a successful long run with the Connecticut Sun, but one that came close but did not produce any championships.

Irony has also made its way into this narrative because the Atlanta front office of the Washington opposition now includes first-year general manager Chris Sienko, who had a similar long run in Connecticut but was also the trigger man in the ouster of Thibault and also responsible for plucking Sun assistant Nicki Collen to make her head coaching debut in Atlanta and no less earning the WNBA’s coach of the year in her first go-round resulting in landing the No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

Thus after Friday night’s narrow 81-76 victory by the Dream, who in recent weeks has had to make do without all-league sensation Angel McCoughtry who suffered a season-ending knee injury, Atlanta is one win from returning to the finals for the first time since 2013 in making Washington one loss from dooming its fan base into another trip into the world of might-have-been.

How has this come about?

We shift back to the closing minutes of Game 2 Tuesday night with the outcome still in balance when Delle Donne’s star-crossed career as a player for the ages dating back to her collegiate career near her Wilmington home at the University of Delaware collided with another cross loaded with injury and illness when she went down with a bone bruise to her left knee.

Atlanta went on to win depriving Washington of heading back here in position to finish a sweep Friday night, though the Mystics were still looking at a potential home sweep prior to tipoff.

From the initial appearance when the injury happened Tuesday, it appeared that Delle Donne might have suffered worse until the diagnosis of the mishap was revealed with Delle Donne’s status for Friday night listed as questionable.

Thus for the next 48 hours Delle Donne had the most talked about knee condition for an athlete in recent months that was not entangled with the national anthem and attacks from the current resident near here at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Finally, as game time approached Friday, Delle Donne was dressed but not listed as part of the starting lineup and ultimately did not see action.

For Thibault it was another gut check in his career to deal with that saw narrow misses with the Sun when Lindsay Whalen, then with the organization, had a knee injury and when Nykesha Sales, who had 32 points in the game, missed a three-ball shot from the corner that would have given the Sun the title over the Seattle Storm, which went on to reach glory the next time out at home in Game 3.

On Friday, after Atlanta had an early seven-point lead and later a 10-point advantage, there was still hope among the Mystics faithful when the teams went into the final quarter with the Dream holding a tight 56-54 lead.

But after a few minutes of play the Dream took over the real estate with Tiffany Hayes, the former UConn standout, and Brittney Sykes canning successive 3-pointers and Washington left in close pursuit but not enough to overcome the Dream advantage.

Hayes finished with a double double 23 points and 11 rebounds, Sykes had 17 points, Elizabeth Williams scored 14, and former Penn State star Alex Bentley, who in the world of irony arrived several weeks ago via deal with the Sun, finished with 10 points.

Jessica Breland had nine points and 11 rebounds.

Aerial Powers off the bench had 18 points for the Mystics, rookie Ariel Atkins out of Texas had 17 points and eight rebounds, LaToya Sanders, counted to help shore up the loss of Delle Donne off her season play, had 12 points and eight rebounds and blocked eight shots, but Kristi Toliver had seven points, and Saint Joseph’s Natasha Cloud, who had been sensational in recent weeks, had just three points.

“I have a real simple opening remark,” Thibault said afterwards. “It’s hard to win a game when you shoot 36 percent.

“I thought our defense, for the most part was good. It was a pretty wild game,” Thibault continued. “I thought they hurt us early with their defensive rebounding and then it became a slug fest of missed shots, offensive rebounds, and free throws.

“They played better than us.”

As for the obvious question about going without his superstar, the Mystics coach responded, “You are taking 20 points, 10 rebounds out of your lineup and the fact she also draws other defenders to give other people good looks, it’s a hard game for someone like Kristi Toliver, who can play off somebody like that to get clean looks.

“It’s like any great star in this league. Your team is just never going to be the same without them. I thought we put up a great fight. I don’t think we played great, offensively at all.

“We just made a tone of mistakes, defensively. Port of it is some unfamiliarity in people playing in the lineup.

“I played Aerial Powers at the power-forward spot for some 20 plus minutes and she hadn’t played one minute of that for us this year, but with Elena (gone) and other people struggling shooting, it became our option and a good option on the offensive end. On the defensive end, we are just not on a string when you do that.”

Thibault had to bench Cloud, who he said struggled, but was hopeful Sunday would be a better day.

Thibault went with an undersized lineup.

“When you take out somebody like Elena, you are probably not going to win playing conventionally against a team that is that good. You can do that some other times, but we had to find some other advantage we could get.”

The Mystics were hopeful that if still no Delle Donne by Sunday’s 3 p.m. tip, the fact they only lost lost by five, perhaps if they cleaned some things up they might extend the series and send it back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 5.

Meanwhile, what shouldn’t be lost in this account is that Collen continues to make good in her league debut as a head coach.

“I was tellimy my team I’ve only coached in three playoff games but that felt like a grind-it-out playoff game. Nothing came easy. I thought Washington was incredibly scrappy” she said afterwards.

As for the unknown but likely possibility thar Delle Donne would not be around to bedevil the Dream, Collen countered, “I think it takes time to feel it out. At the same time, I’ll tell you I didn’t go into this with a sigh of relief, `Delle Donne isn’t playing,’ because I think there’s a mentality when you lose someone, that everybody else steps up a little bit more.

“In great players’ absences, this league is too good to not have a bench that’s going to really step it up so it didn’t make it easy because you knew they were going to scratch and claw and prove that they could win without Delle Donne.”

Of course the extended tale out of this regarding Delle Donne is can she recover in time enough — no matter the Mystics situation - to make the USA roster in time for this month’s FIBA World Championship.

Phoenix Stays Alive

While the Delle Donne drama was playing out here, down in the Southwest in the Arizona desert, the Phoenix Mercury decided they weren’t going to be an easy out swept by Seattle in the other semifinal.

Brittney Griner had 21 points and 11 rebounds, while DeWanna Bonner had 27 points and 11 rebounds, as the Mercury, who forged a tremendous rally in Seattle in Game two before falling in overtime, notched their first win in this round, stopping the Storm 86-66.

Diana Taurasi, who forced the ot in the Game 2 rally, had eight points but Yolanda Turner scored 21.

Breanna Stewart, the league’s MVP, had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Seattle, while Natasha Howard, the most improved WNBA player in the postseason voting, had 19 points. Rookie Jordin Canada out of UCLA had 11 points, as did veteran and former Maryland star Crystal Langhorne out of Willingboro, N.J., in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Veteran Sue Bird dealt 11 assists.

Seattle will again try to close out the series in Phoenix, while the Mercury try to even it up

Sunday, tipping at 5 p.m., EST, after the Atlanta-Washington game here.