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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 12: Elena Delle Donne #11 of the Washington Mystics warms up ahead of a game against the Los Angeles Sparks at Arena on July 12, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

Elena Delle Donne didn't even bother with the traditional post-loss stoicism. She looked perfectly at peace, almost cheerful, after her Mystics lost a Game 1 thriller 86-83 to the Storm in Seattle on Thursday night. Maybe she knew she had done all she could for her team—how could you be angry about a 26-point performance like that? Maybe she just felt grateful to be there, making her long-awaited return to postseason basketball after two years spent rehabbing from back surgeries and a year of load management. She spoke admiringly of her teammates and their patience with her: "What's meant the most to me is how they stuck through it when there were moments where it was like, is this girl ever going to play on our team again? Is she ever going to play basketball again?"

Her postgame press conference last night struck me as the uplifting opposite of the last playoff press conference Delle Donne gave. In that one, following the Mystics' 2019 championship win, it became uncomfortably clear that the happiest moment of her professional life had come at the cost of excruciating pain. Everyone knew she had been dealing with some injury, but nobody understood the extent. "I'm about to drop this bomb on y'all," her teammate Natasha Cloud told reporters then. She revealed that Delle Donne had played the series with three herniated discs. "Surprise!" Delle Donne, sitting to Cloud's right, said sheepishly.

Last night's Delle Donne felt good—a new guilt-free version of an old favorite. The best part was how awesome she looked out there. After two seasons spent out of sight and out of mind, she drilled tough shot after tough shot like she was determined to be the only thing in your sight, the only thing in your mind. The Mystics defend better than any other WNBA team, but lack much offensive creation beyond Delle Donne. And it almost didn't matter! Had Defector-certified Pure Hooper Jewell Loyd not come alive for Seattle in crunch time, Delle Donne's 18-point second-half takeover might have done the trick. Any basketball fan knows the feeling of seeing a player, in the span of a few locked-in minutes, inspire wild belief. That's going in, I thought, as Delle Donne shot a turnaround jumper over Tina Charles. This is so going in, I thought, as Breanna Stewart (a very plausible Defensive Player of the Year candidate) got a hand in her face as the shot clock was about to expire. She will absolutely make that, I thought, of every crazy contested thing Delle Donne would go on to bank off the glass. Her play only kept justifying the belief. She could have walked to the opposite end of the court, faced away from the Washington basket and heaved the basketball backward over her head. My confidence wouldn't have wavered a bit.

If the back injuries robbed Delle Donne of some of her quickness over the years, she didn't look like she missed it much. She still has the frame to play bully ball, and she hasn't lost the exquisite shooting touch that made her the first 50/40/90 player in the WNBA in 2019. (For proof of rust, though, see that her free-throw percentage has dwindled from 97.4 in that MVP season to a pathetic 91 this year. Pick it up, Elena!) I don't know how hopeful to be about the Mystics; they played as well as they could've hoped to and find themselves down a game to a Storm team with another level in them. But it feels like a victory in itself that Delle Donne's power and finesse, fragile-seeming skills, have endured.

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