PHOENIX -- Even if you're not a world-class basketball player, if you've ever had a bad back, you know what it feels like to be Elena Delle Donne right now.
It feels relentlessly lousy. That's physically, as the Chicago Sky star is in nearly constant pain, and mentally, as she was forced mostly into cheerleader mode Sunday during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
"I can't get comfortable in any position," Delle Donne said after the Sky's 83-62 loss to Phoenix. "Standing and leaning against the wall might be the best, but I'm still in a lot of pain. Sleeping sucks. It's just frustrating.
"It's a dream come true to get here [to the WNBA Finals], and then not being able to play because of the pain is kind of like a nightmare."
Delle Donne played just 10 minutes and 24 seconds and scored two points on 1-of-4 shooting. Her back issues began during the Sky's first-round series against Atlanta, though you wouldn't have guessed it after her 34 points in the clinching third game against the Dream.
But since then, she has become progressively limited. And without her, the Sky's offense is limited as well.
Sure, Chicago had to adjust to her absence when she was out most of June and July with a recurrence of the effects of Lyme disease. But it's one thing to "adjust" and another to actually win games. Neither the Sky's surge to make the playoffs nor their upset of Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinals would have happened without Delle Donne.
Admittedly, the Sky were able to defeat Indiana in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals with Delle Donne hobbled, and that's something they will keep reminding themselves going into Tuesday's Game 2 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) in Arizona. But the Mercury's talent makes the need for Delle Donne all the more acute.
"Elena brings a lot to the table -- just her presence on the floor makes defenses play differently," said Chicago center Sylvia Fowles, who led the Sky with 19 points but really had to work for that. "Not having her today -- we missed her a lot. But at the same time, we can't let that make us drop off in so many areas."
Easy to say, hard to do. Let's be frank: Chicago would be a definite underdog in this series even if Delle Donne were feeling good enough to do back flips up and down the court. But with the 6-foot-5 multidimensional scoring threat virtually unable to play, the Sky are trying to navigate harsh rapids in a leaky boat. They shot just 31.9 percent from the field.
Good luck beating the best team in the WNBA with a version of your team simply not near its best. A healthy Delle Donne not only would have provided needed offense, but she'd also have been at least some impediment defensively to Phoenix forward Candice Dupree.
Instead, "Can-Du" was "can't miss" on her first 10 shots from the field; she ended up 13-of-17 for a team-high 26 points. Dupree's volcanic offense, the passing of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor (who combined for 19 assists), Taurasi's own sharpshooting (8-of-13 for 19 points, and Brittney Griner's game-controlling defense left the Sky looking for not just one answer, but several of them.
"It feels like I can't run or walk or find a comfortable position. It's my lower back, and it's sending pain down my legs now. There was no getting through it today. It just feels like it's gotten progressively worse, unfortunately." Elena Delle Donne
"We just got on our heels and never quite recovered," Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said.
Delle Donne's recovery might be the only thing that could make this series matchup a little closer, but that seems doubtful at best. She has been trying everything: massage, heat, cold, muscle relaxants, a cortisone shot, voodoo ... OK, we made up that last one.
"I've done it all," Delle Donne said of her treatments. "I don't know what's going on, if it's structural or what. I've had back issues my whole life, especially in high school when I was growing a lot, but nothing like this.
"Before, I've had some muscle spasms that will warm up, but this is completely different. It feels like I can't run or walk or find a comfortable position. It's my lower back, and it's sending pain down my legs now. There was no getting through it today. It just feels like it's gotten progressively worse, unfortunately."
Taurasi, in the victorious Phoenix locker room, had some ice on her own back after the game. Back issues are sort of an occupational hazard for most basketball players for at least some time in their careers, and Taurasi has empathy for Delle Donne.
"When your back is jacked up, it just takes so much energy to walk, to do anything," Taurasi said. "It inhibits and complicates everything. It really sucks all your energy out of you. It's a hard injury to deal with and then try to play at a high level, which she wants to.
"When she's 100 percent, you see what she can do. But what we have to do defensively is still treat her like she's 100 percent when she is on the court."
Chatman said Delle Donne told her before the game that she felt OK, and she was in the starting lineup. Maybe that was wishful thinking on the part of a competitor who wants so badly to be playing. It seemed clear early on that Delle Donne wasn't moving well. The Sky trailed 42-20 at halftime, and Delle Donne didn't play in the second half.
Still, after the game she was trying to look for some positives for her team.
"I feel like we played with more confidence in the second half. In the first half, we played like we've never been here -- which we haven't," Delle Donne said of the franchise's first WNBA Finals. "It's a resilient bunch, and I feel like we've matured a lot because of all the adversity that's been thrown at us. It's one game, and we have to come back and fight.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to figure something out. I'm going to try my best to get back out there."