New York Liberty Spoil Elena Delle Donne’s Long-Awaited Return to Washington Mystics

 By Danielle McCartan (@CoachMcCartan and www.facebook.com/CoachMcCartan)

NEW YORK, NEW YORK- With its 6-game winning streak on the line, the New York Liberty hosted the Washington Mystics at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. With a taped left hand, Mystics’ superstar Elena Delle Donne took the court for the first time since July 30. Her team, in her absence, held its own at a formidable 3-3. Consequently, they are very-much in the WNBA playoff hunt.

In fact, Friday night’s game had a playoff-like atmosphere.  The teams played as evenly as possible until the fourth quarter, when the Liberty’s stifling defense allowed only 6 points to its opponent’s offense. “Our rebounding and our defense [is our strength].  We’re a solid defensive team, best in the league and that’s where we hang our hat” Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer told me prior to the game. When I asked how their defensive strategy would change with one of the most decorated WNBA players and 2x Olympic Gold Medalist returning to the lineup, Laimbeer replied: “Nothing really any different than our normal package of defense….. We’re not going to change our game because she’s playing.”

 Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous and I talked about how the Liberty defense was able to neutralize Delle Donne. “It was huge. You know the type of player [she] is.  [When] She sees…daylight, she can make one [basket], once she makes one, she can make the second, third, and the fourth so we just really tried to be in her space as much as possible. With players like that, it’s not how you stop them, its about how you keep them under the wraps. Delle Donne is a great player, she’s going to get her touches, she’s going to get her shot attempts, its keeping her under what she average and I think today, being that it is her first game back, I think we did a great job at that”. This season, Delle Donne averages 18.8 points per game (including tonight’s performance). Tonight, she netted only 15.

As far as game-planning against #11? “Shes been out for quite a long time, so we really haven’t seen her as much, but from previous years playing against her, you kind of know where she wants it and how she wants to play, so, we just wanted to lock in on her, load up on her as much as possible” explained Zellous.

Prior to the game, Mystics’ head coach Mike Thibault and I talked about the impact of having Delle Donne back in the lineup. He told me: “It changes our whole team because when you have an MVP type [player like her], she makes everybody else better…. She changes the spacing on the court [and] other players who were being double teamed while she was out now have a little bit more freedom of space. It allows everybody on floor with her to have a little bit more room to operate if they’re going to double team her.  If they’re not, very few players in our league can play her one-on-one and be that successful.  So, it just changes our whole offense.”  As far as Delle Donne’s versatility? “When you have somebody like that that can post up, shoot threes, and put the ball on the floor and…handle the ball in transition…it just changes the dynamics of what you can do.”

Additionally, “on the defensive end, I think she’s so improved….She’s one of the better shot blockers in our league. With her…and Krystal Thomas, we have a lot of size in the paint.”

We also talked about how Delle Donne feels on her first day back in game-action. “She feels good. She’s going to tbe a little bit sore…. [Her thumb is] healthy: the surgery did what it was supposed to do.”  At her locker after the game, with a bag of ice resting on her thumb, Delle Donne emphasized that a playoff run will be an entire team effort. “Our team [is] very versatile, so being able to find mismatches…,being able to draw double teams, and finding everyone else is usually something we’re great at. So [we’ve go to] get used to that, get ready to knock down some shots, and we’ll be fine.”  When I asked if this team is still a playoff-team, she emphatically responded:  “Yeah. Oh yeah. Every game we have coming up, we have great teams. It’s going to be a great challenge for us and get us ready to go.” The Mystics (17-13) will host the Dallas Wings (14-17) tomorrow night.

“I expect us to come and play with intensity and the concentration in the magnitude of the game. We’ve been doing that as of late and that’s what gotten us the wins” Laimbeer told me prior to Friday’s game.Coach Laimbeer, Zellous, and the 19-12 Liberty look to extend their winning streak to 8 games at home on Sunday against the Chicago Sky (12-18).  Though the Sky is 12-18, they are coming off a 96-83 win over the previously 20-10 Connecticut Sun.  Zellous explained the Liberty mentality: “We just [have to] keep building [and] taking it one game at a time. We [saw] Chicago just went up to Connecticut and beat [the Sun, so we can’t take anybody for granted. We just [have to] refocus [because] we have Chicago up next”.

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