What’s changed in Atlanta?
The Atlanta Dream embark on a three-game road trip this week, starting Wednesday in Chicago before wrapping up their season series with the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics.
Prior to its first extended road trip, the Dream suffered three-straight losses. After going 1-7 in June, falling mostly in blowouts, the Dream are 3-3 in July, having lost two close games.
In the last week, the Dream (5-11) topped the Connecticut Sun and the Minnesota Lynx and fell to Los Angeles Sparks in overtime.
What’s different heading into this road stretch?
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- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, September 14: Mystics are going dancing
- Your Day in Women’s Basketball, September 10: Dream are (mathematically) stayin’ alive
Head coach Nicki Collen says broadly that it’s better focused execution of game plans, but more specifically, among other things, the team’s point of attack defense has improved and the Dream is driving down opposing team’s shooting percentages.
“I think we’re battling, I think we’re competing, I think we’re following game plans and giving ourselves a chance to win,” Collen told High Post Hoops before the Lynx game on Friday. “I certainly want to see us make more baskets and make more open shots, but I think we’re playing a lot better.”
Collen continued, “Knowing personnel, and knowing what we’re willing to give up, knowing who we want to beat us and who we don’t want to beat us. We’re much more dialed into game plans that way. I can see it. I can see it out there.”
It’s very clear too, to anyone who has watched all or even most of the Dream’s games this season. The last few home games have been exciting for fans, based on their energetic displays on the sidelines during big plays and the overall increased crowd engagement.
And based on the screams and cheers heard from outside the locker room and the jokes and laughs heard inside following the win over the Lynx, the Dream players are glad things are finally starting to work out too.
They’re defending for their lives
The defensive identity is back. Over their last six games, Atlanta’s defensive rating is 91.1, second in the league in that span. And the way the Dream struggle to score, their signature defense is a necessity to stay in games and win.
There are plenty of examples to choose from lately, but two stand out from the game vs. the Lynx. Tiffany Hayes locked down Lexie Brown on the wing, leaving her dribbling around with not only nowhere to go, but also nowhere to pass. Napheesa Collier appeared with a screen on Hayes, and though Brown tried to pass it to Collier on the roll, Hayes came up with a steal.
In the second half, Elizabeth Williams swarmed Sylvia Fowles, and just as Fowles prepared to shoot over her, Jessica Breland came through the lane for a block. Those two plays didn’t lead directly to points, but they created the energy the Dream looked for earlier this season.
The Dream currently lead the league in blocked shots, rank second in rebounding behind the Aces but also remain last in FG percentage and 3-pointers made. And Collen wants to get a higher number of defensive rebounds.
Monique Billings currently leads the Dream in rebounding per game with 7 – just slightly ahead of Breland’s 6.9. Billings’ toughness and energy off the bench has been great all season, and when she comes in for Breland, she appears everywhere and out of nowhere to grab boards. Billings finished the game vs. Los Angeles with a career and game-high 16 rebounds and season-high 30 minutes for the Dream, playing big minutes late and during OT.
Scoring early, more consistently, when needed
Scoring early and not falling into third-quarter scoring slumps may be the biggest difference in July.
The Dream scored on its first possession in the last three games. Sykes (vs. Connecticut), then Williams times two (vs. Minnesota and Connecticut). Against the Sun, Dream jumped out to a 12-2 lead and against the Lynx it was 19-8, and Elizabeth Williams had a thirteen-point first quarter. Against the Sparks, Atlanta jumped out to a 4-0 lead.
This is the opposite of its previous blowout losses, where teams jumped to seven, 12, and fifteen point leads early on Atlanta, leaving the Dream in numerical and mental deficits to overcome.
It’s no secret that the Dream’s offense runs through Tiffany Hayes. It’s also no secret that Tiffany Hayes has struggled to score consistently all season. If she hits an outside shot early in the game, you’re more than likely about to be welcomed to The Hayes Show and the entire Dream offense is likely to start running smoothly. But what’s more noticeable is other players starting to step up and get the ball into the basket when Hayes is off.
“If one person goes cold, today me, the rest of the team is picking them up. Breland was sick today, she was puking her brains out this morning, and she came out and she did her thing for us and she gave all she had,” Hayes said of Breland’s effort against Minnesota, which included six points, nine rebounds, three blocks and three assists. “If you just come and give 100 percent and do your thing on defense, have good vibes and good energy, we’ll win every time.”
There was also Sykes’ 22-point third quarter vs. Phoenix when it was starting to look like a dismal and familiar second half for the Dream. Elizabeth Williams has battled with Jonquel Jones, Fowles and Nneka Ogwumike over the last three games and has 17-9 (points-rebounds), 17-8 and 7-10 performances.
“I think the centers that I play, they know I’m going to battle and being a smaller center,” Williams said following the Lynx win. “I can get away with a lot more and using my body and also block their shot, I don’t care how good you are. We’re finally buying into that ideal of locking in on defense, no matter what the score is.”
Though they are both have struggled offensively, Hayes and Alex Bentley have been clutch in the last week. Hayes has a 39.7 field-goal percentage and is only averaging 13.3 points per game (this leads the Dream), but she scored 24 vs. the Sparks and her drive and layup with 1.0 seconds left sent the game into overtime.
“The way just opened up for me and I took it to the rim,” Hayes said following the Sparks game. “Angel (McCoughtry) told me before the play, she said, ‘you need to take this shot, this is the last shot, you take it.’ It just ended up being that way for me to do that so I just went in there and finished.”
And since she’s returned from EuroBasket, Bentley has shot 5-26 from three, but she’s hitting big shots when it matters. She had the dagger vs. the Lynx with 26 seconds to go and multiple big shots late in the last week.
“She might be the most dangerous 23 percent three point shooter in the fourth quarter,” Andy Demetra said on the call of Bentley after she helped the Dream pull within 1 in the fourth quarter vs. the Sparks.
Collen said, “She’s always a threat. We need her to make big shots, like she did (vs. Connecticut) to make it a two-possession game. She’s someone that I can challenge in big games and big moments offensively and defensively.”
But the Dream still need to start executing in close games consistently. The Dream’s last four games have gone down to the wire, and they’ve gone 2-2 in them.
In their loss to Phoenix, there was a weird inbound play after a timeout that ended the game with DeWanna Bonner snatching up a bad bass possibly intended for Renee Montgomery. With Los Angeles in overtime, back-to-back three-pointers from Riquna Williams sandwiched a Dream shot-clock violation, and preceded an Atlanta turnover. Soon came the dagger by Gray, and the Dream were handed another loss.
Notes off the bench
We’ve mentioned Billings battling on the boards. Marie Gülich has also been putting in solid minutes and gaining more experience battling bigs and Cazorla is coming into her own after getting more playing time with Bentley overseas. She’s known to hit big shots when needed, but has lately been getting bodies on bigs to fight for rebounds, grabbing steals and scoring layups in transition against strong defending.
Nia Coffey hasn’t played since the July 2 loss in Minnesota. She was a last-minute addition to the injury report vs. Seattle because she was sick, but hasn’t played since, but has been at every game. Haley Peters hasn’t played since June 15.
Following the July 23 game vs. the Sparks in Atlanta, the Dream are off until July 31, in part due to the All-Star break. The Dream currently have no All-Stars for the first time since 2008. The Dream will pick things back up in Indianapolis vs. the Fever.
“We’re finally making it click, we just gotta keep it on a roll,” Sykes said. “Last year, after the halfway point, we went 15-2. So, we can start it off going into the All-Star break, and then continuing.”
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