Sky, Delle Donne get it done

A year ago, Chicago's Elena Delle Donne looked profoundly disappointed in a gloomy locker room after the Sky's first-round WNBA playoff exit at Indiana.

Best record in the East? The league's rookie of the year award? Those things were great, but ... they didn't matter so much at that moment to Delle Donne. Her Sky had been swept by the Fever, and she thought she hadn't stood up to the physicality of the league well enough.

"I just ran out of steam," Delle Donne said then. "That is something that's happened all season and why I have to get so much stronger."

And, indeed, she did return for 2014 with more muscle and stamina, playing like an MVP candidate for the first month of the season. Then the effects of Lyme disease -- something Delle Donne has battled since college -- insidiously sapped her energy again.

For most of June and July, she was forced to watch the Sky struggle without her. She played just four games during those two months. She missed the WNBA All-Star Game. She couldn't be sure when she would be able to return to action.

All that backstory makes what happened Tuesday night in Atlanta even more remarkable. We didn't just see one of the more clutch climbs out of a deep hole in WNBA playoff history. We saw it done by a player and a team whose season has been the very definition of resilience.

The Sky's 81-80 come-back-from-the-dead victory over Atlanta to win their Eastern Conference semifinal series 2-1 was a game you file away to remember, unless you are the Dream or their fans.

In that case, it was -- sorry for the obvious play on words -- the Dream's worst nightmare. They led by as many as 20 points and were up by 17 with just over 8 minutes left.

And then, it was as if Delle Donne just flat-out decided she was not done playing basketball this season. She made driving layups. She hit a 3-pointer. She scored over one of the best defenders in the league in Angel McCoughtry (who was in foul trouble). She sank free throws.

When it was over, Delle Donne had 34 points, including the game winner with 8.4 seconds left. She also had 4 assists, 3 blocked shots and 2 rebounds. The Sky's two longest-term players, Sylvia Fowles (13 points, 15 rebounds) and Tamera Young (16 points, five assists), also were indispensable for Chicago. But it was Delle Donne who -- down the stretch and in the clutch -- just kept delivering the goods.

In the last few years, we've watched Delle Donne, first often overwhelming the Colonial Athletic Association while in college at Delaware, and then transitioning to being a force against the best players in the world. At 6-foot-5 with a combination of post and guard skills, Delle Donne is such an exciting player to watch because we never know exactly what weapon she'll go with next.

The Sky, who had never won a playoff game until last Friday, had dealt with injuries and Delle Donne's illness all through this roller-coaster season. Then they lost forward Jessica Breland -- a key player during the regular season who has her own inspirational story as she battled cancer in college -- to a shoulder injury in Game 1. That meant Delle Donne would need to carry a heavier load.

Chicago was the No. 4 seed and lost its home playoff game, so the Sky had to beat Atlanta on the road twice. They had to face a Dream squad with its own superstar in McCoughtry. Atlanta for three quarters on Tuesday just looked too fast and too good for the Sky to stop.

If it had ended the way it appeared it would end -- with top-seeded Atlanta prevailing and going on to face Indiana in the East finals -- no one would have thought the Sky blew it this year. With all they've gone through and with the lack of playoff experience on the team as a whole, a series loss to the Dream really would not have been a surprise.

Instead, though, Atlanta was the team left stunned. All five Atlanta starters scored in double figures, and for three-fourths of the game, the Dream did pretty much exactly what they needed to do to win.

Then in the last quarter, Delle Donne did what she needed to do.

She's in just her second season in the WNBA, and won't turn 25 until Sept. 5. So we can expect that we will see many more fantastic games from Delle Donne. But this will always be one to remember.