SEATTLE -- The first minute of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals offered an early indication of what kind of night it would be for 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics, who lost 89-76 to the host Seattle Storm on Friday night.
Isolated against Seattle's Natasha Howard at the top of the key, Delle Donne pulled up for a 19-foot shot that Howard altered and came up well short of the basket. Delle Donne would finish 4-for-11 from the field, scoring 10 points -- her lowest output in a playoff game since scoring two points in 10 minutes in Game 1 of the 2014 Finals against Phoenix while with the Chicago Sky.
Back then, Delle Donne was dealing with a sore lower back that forced her off the court. This time, she's playing through a bone bruise to her left knee suffered during Game 2 of Washington's semifinals win over the Atlanta Dream that kept her out of the lineup in Game 3 of that series. In three games since returning, and wearing a bulky knee brace, Delle Donne has totaled only 39 points on 15-for-39 (38.5 percent) shooting, a far cry from her regular-season averages of 20.7 points and 48.8 percent shooting from the field.
Nonetheless, after the game Delle Donne refused to blame her struggles on the injury.
"We can talk about my knee after this series," Delle Donne said. "Excuses are for losers. If I wanted to be 100 percent, I wouldn't have come back. So I knew coming into this thing I was going to have to figure out a different way to play."
It didn't help matters that the Storm used Howard, an All-Defensive first-team pick this season, as their primary defender on Delle Donne -- a slight change from how Seattle had matched up in the past. During the regular season, Breanna Stewart guarded twice as many as Delle Donne's shot attempts against Seattle as Howard, according to Synergy Sports tracking.
Starting in the opening minute, Howard's length made life difficult for Delle Donne.
"It takes pressure off Stewie by doing that," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "They try to keep length on [Delle Donne], and Natasha's really long. Then when they put [Alysha] Clark on Kristi Toliver, that allows them to do some switching on us and try to keep from creating mismatches in pick-and-roll situations. We're going to have to find other ways to create mismatches without Clark being involved at the same time.
"They didn't do anything that we didn't anticipate. We just didn't handle it very well."
Indeed, Delle Donne was hardly alone. The Mystics shot just 40.4 percent over the first three quarters before Thibault turned the game over to his bench with Washington down 24 heading to the final period. Toliver was unable to find any rhythm against the bigger Clark, missing nine of her 11 shots and going 1-for-8 from 3-point range.
As a team, Washington -- which finished the regular season third in the WNBA in 3-pointers made and attempted -- shot 3-for-21 (14.3 percent) beyond the arc.
"Excuses are for losers. If I wanted to be 100 percent, I wouldn't have come back. So I knew coming into this thing I was going to have to figure out a different way to play." Elena Delle Donne, when asked how close to 100 percent her knee is
From Delle Donne's perspective, improvement in Sunday's Game 2 will start with better ball and player movement.
"I think our whole offense was a little bit stagnant," Delle Donne said. "Instead of moving the ball side-to-side, we just kind of were hanging on to it on one side and staring at each other. We've got to create way more movement in our offense and make them chase us around a little bit like they do with us. We've got to dive more, we've got to go backdoor on overplays."
The Mystics have proven they can win without a dominant Delle Donne, taking the last two games against the Dream -- including Game 5 in Atlanta -- with a combined 29 points from their leading scorer. She remains confident in her teammates, including rookie forward Ariel Atkins, who scored a team-high 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting Friday.
"That might not be the same basketball I've been playing all season," Delle Donne said, "but I still feel like I can impact this game. My teammates like Ariel, she's got my back. She can carry me on the offensive end. We've got to be better and we'll find a way. We've got to watch some film and figure it out."
"They didn't do anything that we didn't anticipate. We just didn't handle it very well." Mystics coach Mike Thibault on the Storm's defense
And while Storm point guard Sue Bird -- no stranger to injuries in the playoffs -- is sympathetic to Delle Donne's situation, she's also not convinced that Washington's star will continue to struggle from the field.
"I feel for her," Bird said. "That sucks, to be in this position to get your team to the Finals and probably not feel 100 percent. But you've got to give her credit, because I'm telling you, she's still out there and playing against her you don't feel like that."