Elena Delle Donne's MVP-caliber season on display in WNBA playoffs

There has never been less suspense for the WNBA MVP. But Washington's Elena Delle Donne continues to make her case in the playoffs, like hitting the winning -- and unbelievably tough -- shot in Game 1. Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The seconds ticked down in the final minute of the Washington Mystics' opening game of the WNBA semifinals, and Elena Delle Donne knew the situation called for only one thing: an MVP-type response.

"Our heads were a little out of it at the end. Coach had drawn up a play earlier in a timeout, but we didn't run it," Delle Donne said. "So it was like, kind of an 'Oh, s---' moment. I need to go get the ball and make something happen."

She caught the pass in the corner. Dribbled left-handed toward the top of the key. Quickly changed direction back toward the baseline, switched to a right-hand dribble, and headed to the rim. She stopped suddenly, spun around on the step-back, and launched a fadeaway jump shot from 11 feet over the top of a defender at full extension.

It swished. This is Delle Donne we're talking about.

"Literally in those moments, all that's going through my mind is, 'Get the ball, score the ball,'" she said Wednesday, reflecting on what turned out to be the winning basket in the Mystics' 97-95 victory over the Las Vegas Aces in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals. "It's not like, 'I'm going to do this move because I'm good at it.' It's just kind of all muscle memory, and just, 'Score, whatever you have to do.'"

Or as Mystics coach Mike Thibault puts it, "It's what the great players, men or women, do when games are on the line. Part of it is years and years of skill repetition. Size helps to be able to get those shots. But the last part is being able to stay calm in big moments.

"I've always been impressed by players who don't seem to be rattled when the game is on the line. Those are the ones that end up in the Hall of Fame, and we're very fortunate to have one of those."

The sequence illustrates the MVP level at which Delle Donne plays, and for which the 6-foot-5 guard/forward will be rewarded again. Delle Donne was named WNBA MVP on Thursday, and there has never been less suspense for that award. It is her second; she also won in 2015 while with the Chicago Sky.

But this one is more special because it symbolizes how a player with so many natural gifts insisted on getting better in every aspect of her game. And how doing that made her team a championship contender. The Mystics play the Aces in Game 2 of the best-of-five semifinals on Thursday (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET).

"My growth from my first MVP to this one is a big difference," Delle Donne said. "Before, I felt like I was just a scorer and wasn't making my teammates better around me. Whereas now, I'm much more efficient and better at finding others.

"And if you make others better, it ends up making your job easier. I think I've learned so much over my career, and the reason I don't sit down and say, 'Oh, that's great; I'm so excited,' is because I want to do more."

The offensive numbers for Delle Donne and the Mystics this season were phenomenal. She became the first player in WNBA history to join the 50/40/90 club for her shooting percentage overall (51.5), from behind the arc (43.0) and from the foul line (97.4). She made 114 of 117 free throw attempts.

She was second in the league in scoring (19.5), and the Mystics had the best offensive rating in league history, averaging 112.9 points per 100 possessions. When Delle Donne wasn't scoring, she was finding a way to help her teammates do it.

"She has been better at being able to create for others," Thibault said. "She was a point guard as a young kid, and she's gotten better as a passer out of double teams. Our offense gets better because she's not just a one-dimensional offensive player."

Delle Donne has always been an offensive juggernaut, but she's more than that now.

"When she was out this year, we missed her as much on defense as we did on offense," Thibault said of the three games she was out with some knee issues and then a broken nose. "She has become a consistent shot-blocker. She's learned individual defense better because she spent the last two offseasons working on her body to be better postured, have better balance.

"She's become much more of a film-watcher, and she recognizes situations before they happen. I used to say she played in a little tunnel; she saw what was front of her. Now her anticipation of other things has gotten better."

Delle Donne smiled at hearing that she was missed on defense.

"That feels great, because I feel like my whole career, everybody picked on my defense," she said, chuckling. "When I got here with the Mystics, it's something I really wanted to lock into and be better at, because I know the importance of playing both sides of the ball.

"They've been great at helping me understand angles better, watching more and more film, and telling me, 'You can be really good at this.' They've given me the confidence to be great on both sides of the ball."


Delle Donne wanted to be a calming presence in Game 1

Elena Delle Donne says she leads by being a calming presence for the Mystics after their Game 1 win.

Thibault compares Delle Donne to former Seattle star Lauren Jackson, who won three MVP awards, in how much consternation they cause opposing coaches.

"The first thing I said when she came here is, 'Great! Now I don't have to game-plan for her, because it was a headache,'" Thibault said of the 2017 trade that sent Delle Donne to Washington from Chicago. "Lauren was one of the first players that I worried about her no matter where she was on the floor. I feel like we have that with Elena. You have to account for her all the time."

Tuesday against the Aces, Delle Donne had 24 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Teammate Emma Meesseman led the way in scoring and rebounding, with 27 and 10. In the final minutes of the game, though, it was Delle Donne who called for the ball. It's what she's used to. It's who she has always been.

"I don't think that's anything that can be taught," she said. "I've had that in me since I was little. Even YMCA days, just wanting the ball, wanting that moment and being ready for it.

"And when you fail in that moment, being OK with the next time that moment comes. You're going to be ready and just as confident that the shot is going in. I think it's as much about how you bounce back from those times when you haven't been able to make it in that moment."

Not that there have been that many times she hasn't made the big shot right when it was needed.