ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Dream know the sickening feeling of seeing your franchise player hobble off the court. It happened to them on Aug. 7 when Angel McCoughtry suffered a season-ending knee injury. And it happened to their opponent, the Washington Mystics, late in Game 2 of their semifinal series Tuesday.
Elene Delle Donne, who was having yet another stellar game, slipped as she drove to the basket with the Mystics leading by two points in the fourth quarter. Her knee buckled backward, and she collapsed after a few more steps. Mystics coach Mike Thibault said Delle Donne's status was unknown, and she would be evaluated Wednesday when the team returned to Washington.
After Delle Donne was helped off the court, the Mystics had to try to hold it together and not let their emotions get the best of them -- while trying to fight off an Atlanta team battling to even the series.
But the Dream prevailed 78-75, and now the teams go to Washington for Game 3 on Friday. For Atlanta, Tuesday felt like a must-win situation.
"Really, really proud of our toughness," said Atlanta's Nicki Collen, who was named WNBA Coach of the Year earlier in the day. "We turned over the ball too much, but to get stops when we needed them says a lot about our team. Early in the season, we had a lot of grind-it-out kind of games, and tonight was another one of those."
Collen gave special credit to guard Alex Bentley, who led the Dream with 22 points, and forward Jessica Breland, who had 10 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Breland is just the third WNBA player with at least that many blocks in a playoff game, joining Phoenix's Brittney Griner and Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie.
Breland also had the task of being the primary defender on Delle Donne, which is always a load. Delle Donne had 27 points, 14 rebounds and six assists before she was hurt.
Bentley came to Atlanta via a trade with Connecticut on July 9, as the Dream sent Layshia Clarendon to the Sun. Bentley has scored in double figures in eight of the Dream's past 10 games, including a team-high 19 points in Atlanta's Game 1 loss to Washington on Sunday.
Bentley was also key defensively on Tuesday, getting a late steal and then making one of two free throws with 14.9 seconds left. The Mystics still had a chance to tie the game, but Kristi Toliver missed a 3-point attempt just before the buzzer. After the game, Toliver, who finished with 16 points, fought back tears as she was still upset about Delle Donne's injury.
"Whether [Delle Donne] can play or not Friday," Toliver said, "we have to step forward and give our best effort Friday."
That's what the Dream has been trying to do since they lost McCoughtry, who averaged 16.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists this season. McCoughtry, the 2009 No. 1 draft pick and two-time Olympic gold medalist, led the Dream to the WNBA Finals in 2010, 2011 and 2013. She took off the 2017 WNBA season to rest, and was excited about the chance to make a playoff run this year with the Dream. Instead, they've had to do that without her.
Both their guard play and their post play have helped. Along with Bentley, guard Tiffany Hayes had 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists Tuesday. Center Elizabeth Williams (10 points, 11 rebounds) combined with Breland to give the Dream a 44-26 edge on the boards.
"We definitely changed some of our game plan," Collen said in regard to what was different from their 87-84 loss Sunday. "You saw us in the first matchup switch all of the ball screens with Delle Donne. We didn't do that tonight. We brought some doubles to her. It wasn't as effective as I would have hoped it would be, but at least it kept her thinking a little. Most of her thinking was pretty good, because she had six assists and one turnover.
"But we made up our minds that this is a team that's been built from a defensive platform. We've been good when we kept the matchups we like. We wanted to stay with who we are, and it was all about being us. That was the theme for the day."
It will be extremely difficult for the Mystics to try to be who they are if they don't have Delle Donne. They were 1-3 in the four games she missed with illness early in the season.
"I wouldn't count her out," Collen said.
She then added that, if Delle Donne couldn't play: "Certainly, it does change the game plan. ... You're taking one of the five best players in the world out of the equation. We'll adjust accordingly, but we're going to prepare as if she's going to play."