Elena Delle Donne exits early in Mystics’ win over Sky

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The scene on the floor before tip-off Wednesday night at Entertainment and Sports Arena was a welcome one for the Washington Mystics: The layup line extended all the way out to half-court. At last, Coach/General Manager Mike Thibault had his full complement of players, the first time his team was at full strength in more than two years.

It didn’t last long. Elena Delle Donne started but left midway through the second quarter and never returned. The Mystics held on for an 84-82 win over the Chicago Sky, but the state of their star loomed large after the two-time WNBA MVP missed all but three games the past two seasons amid a pair of back surgeries.

Delle Donne set a screen on the Sky’s Allie Quigley before a turnover, then immediately signaled to the sideline that she needed to come out. Not long after, she walked to the tunnel, and though the Mystics listed her as questionable with back tightness, she never returned to the bench.

“Wasn’t any of the symptoms from a year ago,” Thibault said. “Wasn’t any of that. Just uncomfortable more than anything.”

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For Thibault, who just came back from the WNBA’s coronavirus health and safety protocols, juggling an ever-changing roster has been one of his biggest challenges with the Mystics (8-5). He has used nine starting lineups in 13 games, with Wednesday’s starting five of Delle Donne, Shakira Austin, Alysha Clark, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud deployed for just the second time.

“We’re so used to people being in and out of our lineups,” Cloud said. “But obviously the concern about Elena is not even about basketball — it’s just our teammate and someone that we consider our family.”

The Mystics got a strong night from Clark, their big free agent signing of a year ago who missed the 2021 season with a foot injury. Clark missed the start of 2022 as she continued to rehab but has started to find a groove once she returned — despite missing two games with a stint in the health and safety protocols and another while getting her conditioning back.

Clark delivered her best game with Washington by posting 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting and adding three rebounds and two assists. She had 10 points during an 11-3 run to close the first half that gave Washington a 45-40 lead.

Clark said after the win that her foot was “a little sore, but it’s the new norm.”

“I finally felt like I took another step toward feeling normal,” she added. “New normal — whatever that looks like. I felt good. I felt like I was moving well. I felt confident being out there.”

The Mystics came out of halftime with a 12-2 stretch to take a 57-42 lead. They didn’t trail the rest of the way, but Chicago (7-4) drew even in the final minute when Candace Parker converted a three-point play. Cloud hit a pair of free throws with six seconds remaining, and Parker missed a contested layup as time expired.

Atkins finished with a game-high 19 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists. Austin chipped in 14 points and six rebounds. Parker led Chicago with 16 points and nine rebounds.

Here’s what else to know about the Mystics’ win:

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Whether because of injuries, the health and safety protocols or overseas commitments, the right lineup combinations have been elusive for Thibault. Tianna Hawkins got more playing time Wednesday and started the second half in place of Delle Donne, but that left Shatori Walker-Kimbrough out of the rotation. Thibault said the Mystics won’t play all 11 every night, so that leaves at least one player out of the mix.

“We have 11 really good players. Finding the right minutes, it’s hard,” Thibault said before the game. “There’s nobody playing bad enough to be the one sitting. But one of the ways you solidify your playing time is to not be up and down about that. You’ve got to be the same every day. So what I’m looking for is consistency offensively.”

The Mystics and Sky met for the second time in four days — the Mystics fell, 91-82, on Sunday in Chicago — in what both coaches said gives the schedule a playoff feel. Scouting the other team becomes a bit easier with the quick turnaround.

“It’s weird,” Sky Coach James Wade said. “It gives you a little bit of a playoff feel, but it’s not. You always have that in mind. I don’t really like them. I think the assistant coaches like them because it’s easier to do scout. The last couple of years, we’ve tended to have done well. It’s just something I’m not a big fan of.”

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert was in attendance as part of her tour of the league. Her goal is to visit each team before the all-star break, but she may fall just short.

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