Last week, the Washington Mystics left Atlanta perhaps wondering whether there was some kind of jinx on the franchise. The Mystics had been so close to a 2-0 semifinal series lead against the Dream. Instead, they headed home to Washington with the series tied and lots of uncertainty about star forward Elena Delle Donne, who had suffered a knee injury late in Game 2.
But now the Mystics are headed back to Atlanta for the decisive Game 5 on Tuesday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) at McCamish Pavilion, one victory away from the franchise's first appearance in the WNBA Finals.
Washington joined the WNBA in the league's second year, 1998. Under the old playoff format, the Mystics made it only as far as the Eastern Conference finals, and only once: In 2002, they lost 2-1 to New York.
Under the new format implemented in 2016, Washington has made the best-of-five semifinals two years in a row. The Mystics were swept by eventual champion Minnesota last season but now have the opportunity to write the best story, so far, in their history.
But not so fast. No. 2 seed Atlanta has been to the WNBA Finals three times -- 2010, '11 and '13 -- but the Dream have yet to win a game in the championship series. Current Atlanta players Tiffany Hayes, Alex Bentley and Angel McCoughtry were on the Dream's last WNBA Finals team; McCoughtry has been out since suffering a season-ending knee injury Aug. 7.
It looked, at first, as if a similar thing had happened to Delle Donne when she slipped Tuesday and then fell to the floor and had to leave the game. She sat out Friday's Game 3, which the Dream won 81-76, but she played in Sunday's Game 4, which the Mystics won 97-76.
We'll have to see how Delle Donne's knee responds after 34 minutes on court Sunday and another airplane flight. And how the Dream respond to their worst defensive effort of these semifinals.
Washington shot 40 percent or lower from the field in the first three games. But Sunday, the Mystics finished at 50 percent (35 of 70) and had six players score in double figures, led by Kristi Toliver's 22. Delle Donne scored 15, and she led Washington in rebounding with 10. After the Dream won the board battle the first two games, the Mystics have done so the past two games, including 40-31 Sunday.
"I just think, more than anything else, she just gives everybody else around her confidence," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said of Delle Donne. "We have the best player in the game on the court, and that helps a lot mentally."
The mental part of Game 4 seemed a bit lacking for Atlanta; it was just not a sharp performance for the Dream. Their offense, led by four players each scoring 12 points, was relatively good -- but they missed 14 of 25 from the free throw line. And the defense wasn't Dream-like at all. Atlanta has to be closer to normal on that side of the ball to win Tuesday.
"We just didn't guard," Dream coach Nicki Collen said Sunday. "Guarding is a staple. It's what got us to this seed. And certainly, what is going to propel us forward, if we are going to bounce back and get a win in Game 5."