SEATTLE – In a game that had already seen 14 lead changes and nine ties, the Atlanta Dream made one final push at the Washington Mystics in the final minute of the decisive Game 5 of their 2018 WNBA Semifinal series.
The Mystics led by six points before seeing Alex Bentley drain a 3-pointer to cut the lead in half. That was followed by a Washington five-second violation turnover to give the ball back to Atlanta in a one-possession game with 32 seconds left.
Tiffany Hayes sank a driving layup with 24.1 seconds to play to cut the lead to one, but with the shot clock and game clock essentially in sync, the Dream were forced to foul in order to get the ball back and hope that Washington would help them with a missed free throw or two.
Enter Elena Delle Donne. The greatest free throw shooter ever.
That’s no exaggeration. Delle Donne’s career 93.4 percent success rate at the free throw line is the highest mark of any player not just in WNBA history, but in NBA history as well.
And if that wasn’t enough, her percentage is even better in the postseason. In 24 playoff games, Delle Donne has attempted 109 free throws with only four misses. That’s a ridiculous 96.4 percent. Clearly the Dream would want to foul anybody but Delle Donne in this situation.
But as soon as she caught the ball near midcourt, it wasn’t going anywhere else as Delle Donne waited for the foul to come and send her to the line for the most pivotal free throws of her basketball career.
“At that point, it doesn’t come down to like my statistics; it more comes down to the process that I’ve practiced since I was in eighth grade,” said Delle Donne on Thursday at Mystics practice before Friday’s Game 1 (9 PM ET, ESPNews). “And just knowing the confidence I have in that process, how long I’ve worked that shot over and over again. And not overthinking it. The biggest thing on the foul line is you can’t let too much get inside your head, you just have to do it.”
It’s one thing to knock down free throws during a random regular season game, but here she was with less than 12 seconds remaining in the game and a trip to the WNBA Finals on the line. Good luck calming the nerves in that scenario.
“I’m not clueless to what the score is and how much time is left,” she said with a laugh. “I knew exactly what was on the line and if I told you I didn’t have nerves that would be a lie. It was a nerve-wracking situation, but I got up there, did my normal routine, my normal process and just let it fly.”
Delle Donne sank both free throws to put the Mystics back up by three points with 11.5 seconds to play. There was still plenty of time for the Dream to draw up a play to try to tie the game and force overtime. Tiffany Hayes launched a well-contested step-back 3-pointer that fell short and went out of bounds off Atlanta with 4.7 seconds left.
The Mystics called timeout, made sure to get the ball into Delle Donne’s hands so when the foul was taken by the Dream, the GOAT free throw shooter would be back on the line.
Delle Donne followed the same routine. And got the same result. She made both free throws to improve to a perfect 23-for-23 in this year’s playoffs. And most importantly, she gave the Mystics an insurmountable five-point lead to secure Washington’s first-ever trip to the WNBA Finals.
“I started it back in eighth grade and its just finding something that works and doing it over and over again,” Delle Donne said. “For me, I’ve been working on it for so long and its worked and it gives me confidence in huge moments like that.”
Delle Donne’s follows this simple routine because “if you keep it simple, less can go wrong.”
1. Step up to the line
2. Find the dot with her right foot
3. Line up her feet
4. Take three dribbles
5. Make an L with her arm
6. Lift and flick
Delle Donne has followed this routine for the past 15 years and has made countless free throws in practice to perfect her technique to the point that it is shocking to see one of her free throws not fall through the net.
While she never gives herself a number of free throws that she has to hit during a practice session (she just goes by feel), she does have a unique practice habit that has translated very well to in-game situations.
“Throughout workouts I always use it as my rest,” she said. “Instead of just going and sitting down and taking a sip of water, instead I rest on the foul line.”
By consistently practicing her free throws while her body is fatigued to the point of needing a break, she is mimicking what it is like to go to the free throw line during a game, when she is going 100 percent and exhausting all of her energy.
“In the game, you’re not coming off a ton of rest,” she said. “It’s usually up and down, up and down and then you’ve got to be ready, control your breathing and get it done.”
Delle Donne has gotten it done her entire career; making 935 of the 998 free throw attempts she’s had in the WNBA between the regular season and playoffs. The last four she made helped her team secure a spot in the Finals, where she’ll be faced with more nerve-wracking situations to navigate. The stakes may be changing – with the title now on the line – but her routine will not.