Elena Delle Donne leads Mystics past Fever

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Washington Mystics got into town without issue Monday, a rarity this season, and even serenaded birthday girl Myisha Hines-Allen at the airport. There were no delays, no rerouting, no having to switch to a train.

The biggest benefactor of the smooth travel: Elena Delle Donne, who played her second road game of the season in an 87-75 victory over the Indiana Fever on Tuesday night.

The two-time WNBA MVP is following a complex maintenance process in her return from a pair of back surgeries that limited her to three games over the past two seasons. Part of that is Washington (7-3) implementing a load management program in hopes of keeping her healthy in the short and long term.

So far, Delle Donne has played in seven of the Mystics’ 10 games, and five of those have come at home. After wedging herself into a cramped plane and sleeping in a hotel bed, she has post-plane movement and early-morning treatment on game day to “work the travel out.”

“Travel certainly adds more,” said Delle Donne, who finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks. “It’s harder than home.”

From the preseason: Elena Delle Donne is competing against herself now

Even at home, Delle Donne sticks to an arduous daily routine to remain in playing condition and ward off any issues with her back. When the Mystics are on the road and she’s not, Delle Donne scrimmages with the male practice players and others to try to keep her rhythm — playing full-court three-on-three and four-on-four, along with half-court sets. The goal is to make those “days off” as close to gamelike as possible so her body adjusts and she can add more games down the road.

The Mystics face the challenge of developing chemistry as Delle Donne moves in and out of the lineup. And she has to play catch-up when the team returns and get a feel for what was or wasn’t working.

Coach Mike Thibault said none of it feels normal yet, but Delle Donne seems to have gotten used to the routine. She is slated to play against the visiting New York Liberty on Friday, but a decision has yet to be made on Sunday’s game at Chicago.

“I have such a process that each day feels very similar,” Delle Donne said. “… So I think that helps me kind of just stay in the moment … and know this is the best thing for my body — and know what I’ve been through and being smart.

“[The back surgeries] almost took me out of the game forever, so [I want] to be smart in this comeback and to continue on my process and trust that they got it when I’m not there. And then, when I get to be there, we all got it. And they’ve been great. That’s what great teams do.”

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

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After an ugly first half, the Mystics outscored the Fever 49-29 in the second. Indiana led 46-38 at halftime after shooting 51.4 percent, including 58.3 from behind the arc. Thibault said the Mystics tweaked their defense on Kelsey Mitchell (26 points) at halftime, got out to the shooters better and turned in stops that jump-started the offense. The Fever (3-8) shot 30.8 percent in the second half.

Elizabeth Williams led the defensive effort with six blocks to go with a career-high 15 rebounds and 10 points.

I tried to, especially coming off the bench, just bring energy,” she said. “It’s fun. Blocking is one of my favorite parts of the game. I don’t care who it is — if you’re short, you’re tall, I’m going to try to block it.”

“You can see why we got Elizabeth,” Thibault said. “… [We] had them kind of thinking about coming to the rim a little bit in the second half.”

The half-court offense improved as Washington moved the ball better, leaned on its scorers and limited poor possessions. Ariel Atkins caught fire in the second half and posted a season-high 28 points; Natasha Cloud upped the aggression and added 16 points, nine assists, four rebounds and two steals.

“Our defense was better, so that made our offense flow a lot better,” Atkins said. “[Cloud] changed her pace a lot in that second half, and that really helped the spacing of our offense. It’s definitely helpful when we’re all kind of doing our small parts and they’ve just got to pick your poison — and tonight I was the poison.”

Alysha Clark missed her second consecutive game while in the WNBA’s coronavirus health and safety protocols. Thibault said she has tested negative once and needs one more to be cleared. She is likely to miss at least one more game, even if she’s cleared, as she works to get back into game condition. Kennedy Burke started her third game in Clark’s place, posting eight points in 20 minutes.

The loss came in Indiana interim coach Carlos Knox’s second game at the helm, and he did so in a building with his No. 34 jersey hanging from the rafters. The home arena for the Fever and the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, Gainbridge Fieldhouse, is in the final stage of a makeover, so Tuesday’s game was played at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. It’s the home of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), where Knox was an all-American.

Knox replaced Hall of Fame coach Marianne Stanley, the former Mystics head and assistant coach, after she was fired last week following two-plus seasons.

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