WASHINGTON -- Elena Delle Donne returned to the starting lineup just in time for the Washington Mystics. The star forward, who missed the Game 3 loss to the Atlanta Dream after suffering a bone bruise in her left knee, played though the injury and helped her team secure a 97-76 win Sunday to extend the WNBA semifinal series to a decisive Game 5.
The series shifts back to Atlanta for the finale on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
Delle Donne didn't appear to be at full strength, but still pulled off a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and her existence yielded opportunities for those around her. Delle Donne was scoreless in the first quarter but her presence was enough to shift the Dream's focus, paving the way for better offensive looks for her teammates. Six Mystics players scored in double figures.
"If she's on the floor they have to respect her and honor her and that just changes everything for everyone," Washington guard Kristi Toliver said. "I'm happy that she was able to get going, especially in the second half, feeling good, her legs were under her. ... I'm just really happy to have her back."
Toliver, who scored only seven points and went 3-for-15 from the field in Game 3, posted a team-high 22 points for Washington. Ariel Atkins, who is averaging 14 points and 3.8 rebounds in the playoffs, scored 19 on Sunday.
"I'm glad that not only myself but others were able to answer the call and now we have to build off of this momentum," Toliver said.
Delle Donne, averaging 23.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in four postseason games, didn't score her first point until there was just 3 minutes, 45 seconds left in the second quarter. She didn't drive to the basket as aggressively as usual, but she still found ways to score.
"My team carried me most of the way and luckily I was able to get going in the second half," said Delle Donne, who injured the knee in the fourth quarter of the Mystics' Game 2 loss to the Dream.
Her second 3-pointer of the game -- she made three of her five 3-point attempts -- ended a 10-0 run for the Dream that saw Atlanta climb to within 62-57 in the third quarter. Washington started the fourth on a 22-7 run to win going away.
Her knee will dictate whether the 2015 league MVP will play in Game 5, but it's likely Delle Donne will be in the lineup in Atlanta. She has focused on two main recovery tactics for her knee -- the hyperbaric chamber and float tanks.
"Just finding a way to getting as much rest and recovery as I can in this small amount of time, tons of ice, a lot of laying around and elevating [the leg] so the bones can recover and be ready to go," Delle Donne said of her routine leading up to Game 4.
Delle Donne had her left leg elevated and wrapped with an ice bag as she sat next to Toliver during the postgame news conference.
"My knee feels awesome," Delle Donne said somewhat sarcastically when asked about her injury. Her plan is to rest and recover prior to Tuesday's game in Atlanta.
It's clear the Mystics are a better team with Delle Donne on the floor. It was evident as she carried her team during the regular season, but it's even more evident in the playoffs. And her return has put Washington just one win away from playing in its first WNBA Finals.