Delle Donne's return inspires Mystics to 2-1 WNBA Finals lead

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Would she or wouldn't she? The big question before Sunday's Game 3 of the WNBA Finals was whether league MVP Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics would play. She was diagnosed with a herniated disk in her back after an MRI on Wednesday. Mystics coach Mike Thibault said he didn't expect her in the lineup.

But Delle Donne played, as did guard Ariel Atkins, who also was listed as questionable with back spasms. Their back issues didn't stop the Mystics, who have now put the Connecticut Sun's backs against the wall in the championship series. The Mystics won 94-81 and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five Finals. Game 4 is Tuesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) here in Connecticut, and Washington is a victory away from its first WNBA title. Delle Donne had 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting and six rebounds, playing 26 minutes on Sunday.

"It was, you know, pick your spots," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said of when Delle Donne looked to score. "You still have to honor her no matter where she is on the floor. And she's got some guts."

But Delle Donne, who has sung the praises of her teammates all season, did so again Sunday.

"I just want to be a leader for this team," she said. "I absolutely love them. I did nothing. I was just on the court and they carried me. They've done that all season long. I love them to death. And we've got a little bit more work to do."

She said that "great doctors, great therapists" were helping her to be able to play. Will Delle Donne -- who played with a large wrap around her back and abdomen and left the court a few times during the game to stretch -- play on Tuesday? Again, that will be the big question.

But before a packed house of 9,170 fans at Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday, the Mystics had enough answers. It was an all-hands-on-deck kind of performance, the kind of game that -- if they do win the title -- will always be remembered. The starters did their part, but so did the reserves.

"They're absolute monsters," Delle Donne said of her teammates who came off the bench. "Their defense, their rebounding, the way they attack. They play like they're starters, and they have all season and that's why we're winning."

Emma Meesseman led the Mystics off the bench with 21 points, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter. That included three consecutive 3-point baskets to start the period, all from about the same spot on the court.

Meesseman said that as soon as the Mystics saw that Delle Donne and Atkins were starting, "Our energy went up. They give everything for us, so we need to give everything to them. Every single point, every single rebound makes a difference."

Kristi Toliver had 20 points and 10 assists, and Natasha Cloud added 19 points, as the Mystics shot 50.7% from the field. Cloud also played exceptional defense. Atkins was in for 13 minutes and 41 seconds, getting two points, two assists and four rebounds.

"I just wanted come in and see what my body could do," Atkins said. "I woke up this morning and was feeling pretty decent. Then I got on the court and I could jump. So I figured if I could jump, I could be of some use."

Delle Donne was in the game for 11 minutes, 15 seconds of the first half and was 2-of-2 from the field, both from behind the arc. Delle Donne didn't look comfortable moving laterally to defend, but she managed to grab two first-half rebounds. A Connecticut 12-2 run just before halftime cut the Mystics' lead to 43-39, but, all things considered, Washington had to be happy with the half.

Delle Donne played 7:12 of the third quarter and made the only shot she attempted, another 3-pointer. Despite staying on the perimeter as much as possible, she picked up three more rebounds in the quarter, after which the Mystics led 68-57.

Then it was Meesseman's turn to take over, with her three consecutive treys putting the Mystics up 77-60.

"It was just that play that coach drew up," Meesseman said of her ability to get open three times in a row at such a pivotal time in the game. "We kept trying it. That came at the right moment."

Delle Donne missed her first shot from the field with about seven minutes left in the game, but the Mystics' defense -- which was their biggest concern after their 99-87 Game 2 loss -- really got the job done Sunday. The Mystics outrebounded the Sun 34-27, and every Washington player who got in the game had at least two rebounds.

Connecticut's Jonquel Jones, who had 32 points and 15 rebounds in Tuesday's Game 2, was held to nine points on 3-of-8 shooting and nine rebounds. And Connecticut guard Courtney Williams scored just six points on 2-of-9 shooting. Shekinna Stricklen and Jasmine Thomas led Connecticut with 16 points each, but limiting Jones and Williams was big.

"I think we took it personally," Mystics post player LaToya Sanders said of the defensive effort.

Thibault added, "The things that we made a priority going into this game I thought we did a pretty good job of, particularly rebounding, taking care of the ball, other than a couple crazy turnovers. But rebounding and making it tough for their best players to get good looks."

The Sun cut the lead to 10 points -- 84-74 -- with just over three minutes left. Then Delle Donne scored on her first drive to the basket of the game, hitting a shot from the baseline.

And that basket, fittingly, was the door-slammer on the game.