#2 Connecticut Sun (21-13) vs. #3 Atlanta Dream (20-14)
Regular season series: Tied 2-2
@ Con. 07/31: Sun 99-92
@ Atl. 08/19: Dream 94-88
@ Con. 08/21: Sun 96-87
@ Atl. 09/06: Dream 85-74
This time last season, things were very different for these two teams. Atlanta had just about held on to their playoff spot despite losing six of their last seven games, while Connecticut finished a place below them and missed the playoffs entirely for the second straight season. What a difference a year makes. The further development of Tina Charles, improved health of Asjha Jones and better support from the surrounding pieces has seen a much improved Connecticut team challenge Indiana for the Eastern Conference crown. Meanwhile, after an awful 3-9 start to the season, Atlanta have come charging back into the reckoning led by their own MVP candidate in Angel McCoughtry. After the seasons they’ve had, neither is going to be happy with just making up the numbers in the postseason.
While the matchup wasn’t decided until the final day of the regular season, the home-and-home games that these teams played in mid-August felt like playoff encounters, so it almost seems like this series was destined to happen somewhere along the way. The Dream like to push the pace as much as possible, flying from one end of the court to the other in attack mode from beginning to end, but the Sun are pretty comfortable at a fast pace as well. They don’t play with quite the speed of the Dream – and when your best player is your center you really wouldn’t want to – but Atlanta’s pace won’t frighten them. It does usually lead to quick, end-to-end games though, which should make this series a lot of fun to watch.
But while the most obvious excitement may come from the speedy, fastbreaking basketball, the real entertainment for the basketball purists is going to come in the paint. The Sun have been led all year by Charles, who broke the record she set herself last year for double-doubles in a season. Her combination of size, athleticism, positioning and skill inside makes her the first option for Connecticut, and she increasingly uses her mid-range jumper as an offensive weapon as well. But Dream center Erika de Souza gives her some trouble. de Souza’s a very big woman, and she uses her size and strength to make deep post position very hard for Charles to find. The Dream collectively are one of the best rebounding teams in the WNBA, leaving offensive rebounds and putback opportunities scarce for Charles as well. That sometimes leaves her settling for that midrange jumper a little too freely against the Dream which might be falling or might not – it’s certainly nowhere near the high-percentage shot that Charles typically finds in the paint. Despite Atlanta being the team that will want to keep the pace high in every game, speed is the one area where Charles has a clear edge over de Souza in their matchup. If she can beat de Souza down the floor for a possession or two, Charles will find it much easier to earn a few cheap points without having to work quite so hard.
At least Atlanta have an obvious defender to throw at the Sun’s chief weapon – Connecticut are going to have to do a collective job trying to stop Angel McCoughtry. She’s had a storming second half of the season, and it’s no coincidence that the Dream finally started winning consistently once she got healthy. Yes, she’s a little greedy at times (maybe even a lot greedy on certain occasions), but you can’t argue with the results. She drives and shoots and drives and shoots and the points just keep piling up. Her percentages aren’t exceptional – and she takes too many threes for someone who isn’t good at all from beyond the arc – but she’s made a living at the free throw line this season. She storms into the paint, creates contact, and earns calls over and over again. Connecticut have a lot of wings to throw at her – Kalana Greene will probably start on her, Danielle McCray can move over, Kara Lawson, Tan White and Allison Hightower will all take a turn off the bench – but it’s not going to be easy. The only person who ever really stops Angel is Angel herself, if she starts shooting too much from outside or gets upset at some perceived injustice and checks out mentally. She’s an emotional player who’s still susceptible to something like that, but last year the playoffs only brought out the best in her. There’s no reason to expect anything different this time around, when she closed the season looking an even more effective player than last year.
In a lot of ways these teams mirror each other. Renee Montgomery and Lindsey Harding are both speedy point guards who can break down a defense when they’re in the mood, but sometimes fade out of games. Harding has improved as the season’s gone on and she’s grown more comfortable in Atlanta, while Montgomery started off hot and faded, but that should be a fairly even fight. Hampered by injuries this season and not quite as keen to fight it out in the trenches, Sancho Lyttle’s offensive game has begun to resemble that of Asjha Jones, her direct opposition at power forward in this series. Jones has had a bounce-back year after recovering from her own injuries, but like Sancho sometimes settles for too many jumpers when she could be creating easier shots inside. Out on the wing, no one can match up with Armintie Price’s ridiculous speed on the break, but all those wings mentioned above as potential defenders for McCoughtry offer a greater offensive arsenal to compensate.
One place where you will see a very evident difference between these two teams is in the variety of their offensive attack. Connecticut aren’t afraid of the three-pointer – not quite as keen on it this year as in some bombs-away years passed, but still happy to hoist when the opportunity presents itself. Atlanta can’t shoot from out there to save their lives. They adjust to this by barely taking any. McCoughtry might take a couple a night, Harding will launch if she’s wide open and in rhythm, and after that it’s down to the occasional attempt from reserves like Coco Miller, Iziane Castro Marques and Alison Bales. It’s drives, mid-range jumpers and free throws – that’s it. In fact it’s remarkable that they’re so successful in the modern game without much threat from outside. Because of this lack of perimeter attack, we’re going to see a lot of Connecticut’s 2-3 zone in this series. Their base defense is usually a man-to-man, but Mike Thibault has introduced a lot of zone this season when the situation has demanded it. With days to prepare specifically for two or three straight games against Atlanta, I expect Thibault to try to force Atlanta to beat his team from outside. Chances are Atlanta can’t do that, and hopefully Marynell Meadors’s team are smart enough to know that about themselves. So they’ll be driving anyway. Whichever team wins Game 1, this series in particular is going to be interesting to see what changes are made for the next game in response. The chess match is almost as fascinating as the basketball.
Matchup to watch: Tina Charles vs. Erika de Souza
I know I’ve already gone on about it. I don’t care. Take a couple of possessions off and don’t watch the ball – just watch these two in the paint. Especially when Connecticut are on offense, Charles knows that she needs good position inside, and de Souza knows that it’s her job to stop her getting it. It’s a war under there. Here’s hoping for understanding refs, because calling cheap early fouls to ‘control’ the game could kill a lot of the entertainment.
One extra thing to watch – Charles only shot 10 free throws combined across four games against Atlanta this season. In 133 minutes of basketball. While she’s not the free throw demon that McCoughtry is, that’s amazingly low for an All-Star center in four games of heavy action. It suggests that a) de Souza’s doing a heck of a job on her, or b) de Souza’s defense frustrates Charles enough that she gives up on the post game and starts shooting from outside. Or some combination of the two. If Charles only averages 2.5 free throws per game in this series, I don’t fancy Connecticut’s chances.
In the end, the greater likelihood that Atlanta can deal with Connecticut’s major threat as opposed to the Sun stopping the Dream’s primary weapon has me leaning towards Atlanta. They’ve been so good late in the season whenever they can inject pace into the game, with the posts throwing outlet passes and McCoughtry and Price flying to the rim. The Sun are more likely to run with them rather than try to slow them down, which should favour Atlanta. While I never fully trust any volume scorer – McCoughtry’s shooting accuracy (or lack thereof) scares me – she’s found a way to lead this team to repeated victories over the last couple of months. Even when they’ve had off-nights, they’ve often managed to sneak out wins, with bounces rolling their way or someone making an unlikely shot. The counterbalance is that Connecticut have home court advantage, and for those paying attention this year, that means a lot to the Sun. They rarely lose at the Mohegan Sun Arena, 15-2 there this year, 12-5 in 2010 (when they were a pretty mediocre team). But my belief in McCoughtry plus speed vs. Connecticut just about outweighs my belief in Charles plus Mohegan vs. Atlanta.
Atlanta 2-0. Only because it’s easier to steal Game 1 on the road than Game 3, not because I expect the series to be remotely one-sided.