By the numbers (over entire regular season):
Atlanta (17-17) vs Washington (17-17)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 95.19 (9th in WNBA) – 95.96 (6th)
Points conceded per 100 possessions: 93.2 (1st) – 95.6 (6th)
Rebound percentage: .503 (4th) – .502 (6th)
Season series between the teams: Atlanta won 3-2
06/02 @Wash, Dream won 73-63
06/28 @Atl, Dream won 86-75
08/18 @Atl, Dream won 76-58
08/23 @Wash, Mystics won 74-64
08/28 @Atl, Mystics won 85-80
These teams finished tied with .500 records in the Eastern Conference, but arrived there by very different routes. Washington were a ‘win two here, lose three there’ kind of team all season long. They’d fight out a few results, then lose their way for a while, then remember what they needed to do to win games again. Just to make it this far has to be considered a success for Mike Thibault and his squad, considering the disastrous couple of years under Trudi Lacey that preceded this season. Meanwhile, Atlanta started the year 10-1, and then dropped into something resembling freefall. For those of you who can do basic math, you’ll be able to calculate that they went 7-16 over the remainder of the season. Injuries hit them hard, and it was a struggle to overcome them enough to regain real form in the second half of the year – plus not everyone is back. Both these teams are somehow predictably unpredictable, which makes foretelling how their series is going to play out rather tricky.
Thibault has turned the Mystics into a solid team this year. You can see from the stats above that they’re pretty consistently mediocre – which isn’t a criticism. They’ve lifted themselves to being middle-of-the-pack at most aspects of the game. They play decent team defense, they can hit shots from outside, they can draw fouls on penetration – but they’re also prone to cold streaks, occasional breakdowns defensively, and becoming painfully static on offense. They work hard for each other, but you’re never quite sure where their offense is going to come from. Will Ivory Latta or Monique Currie get hot from the perimeter? Is this a random night where Kia Vaughn or Crystal Langhorne finds some rhythm inside? Will their young bench group lead to the offense disintegrating or energise the team and keep the starters on the bench? They’ve pieced things together this season from game to game, finding the hot hand wherever it is, and clawing out wins. Their depth and multiple potential scorers makes it hard to plan to stop them, because you can’t focus on a particular player or two, but it also means they don’t have a true go-to option. They’re reliant on someone stepping up on any given night.
The Atlanta Dream are a very different animal. They have a clear leader, and need to play in a very particular style in order to be successful. They’re at their best when they can enforce a high tempo on the game, creating turnovers and running the floor constantly on the break. More than any other team in the WNBA, their defense and offense are interlinked, with success in the former leading to success in the latter. But if you can slow the game down and force them into a halfcourt game – and especially if you can force them into trying to beat you by shooting from the perimeter – they have been known to fall apart.
Angel McCoughtry leads the way for Atlanta. While they have other players who can score, they look to her to control the tempo and drive the offense. She’s advanced her game in some ways this year, doing a significantly better job of keeping her head up and looking for teammates who might be in a better position to score than she is. But she’s also continued to force up plenty of ugly jump shots under pressure, which rarely find their way through the hoop. Assuming Washington manage to take care of the ball well enough to avoid Atlanta simply running past them in transition and winning games on the break, the series could come down to how well they handle McCoughtry. If defenders like Monique Currie and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt can stay in front of her and force her to shoot, limiting layup chances and free throws, then Washington have a chance. But with a player with the talent of McCoughtry, that’s easier said than done.
Atlanta have other weapons as well. Their real problems this season came when both power forward Sancho Lyttle and sixth woman Tiffany Hayes were sidelined by injuries. Unless they’ve been keeping her under wraps as a secret weapon, Lyttle still appears to be out with her broken foot. But Hayes has returned and immediately provided the attacking, slashing energy that the Dream had been missing. Armintie Herrington can do some similar things as well, but Hayes is the more effective offensive player. The point guard combo of Jasmine Thomas and Alex Bentley are also capable of hitting shots on occasion as well. The Dream have been at their best this year when they actually move the ball and look for cutters and options around the floor, rather than constantly driving as one-on-one scorers. They need to keep that in mind, because it’s a trap they fall into all-too-frequently. McCoughtry’s the most obvious culprit, but she’s certainly not the only one on the team.
Atlanta also have the most dangerous post player in the series, in the hulking shape of Erika de Souza. She’s confirmed that she’ll be staying with the Dream for the playoffs, rather than leaving to represent Brazil at the Fiba Americas tournament, which was vitally important for Atlanta’s prospects. They can toss the ball in to her in the paint as an alternative to their constant dribble drives or often low-percentage outside looks. She’ll also go to work on the glass, and give the Kia Vaughn/Michelle Snow combo plenty to worry about inside. Having to make do with Le’coe Willingham instead of Lyttle has been a rocky path at times, but losing Erika as well might’ve made them underdogs for this series.
Key to Watch: Atlanta’s small lineup
With various Dream players resting injuries during their games in the last week or two, head coach Fred Williams went away from using their ‘small’ lineup with Angel McCoughtry at power forward, but expect it to return in this series. Willingham is their first option to defend Langhorne, but especially when Thibault goes to his bench and Emma Meesseman replaces Lang, we’ll see Atlanta shift small. It makes them quicker and even more aggressive defensively, as they swarm around the floor looking for steals, traps and double-teams. It puts another ballhandler on the floor, and another player who can at least shoot a little and stretch the floor as much as Atlanta ever can. And it simply gives them extra energy, with Herrington, Hayes and McCoughtry all flying around after rebounds and loose balls. The shift to a smaller lineup tends to shake things up on the floor as well, because McCoughtry’s a mismatch for power forwards. That either means someone like Langhorne or Meesseman trying to survive on her as best they can, or shifting that power forward onto a non-shooter like Herrington and hoping she can’t make anything of it by driving past the slower defender. It’s always an option for Williams, just to throw everyone off-balance as much as anything else.
It feels like the destiny of this series depends on Atlanta more than Washington. The Mystics will show up, play hard, maybe hit a few shots but likely miss a few more. Langhorne might have one good game in three, based on how she’s played this year, and Latta or Matee Ajavon might have a hot streak. But they’ll pretty much be who they are. The Dream have a higher ceiling and a lower floor. When they show up with real passion and energy, attacking the rim consistently and running the floor hard, they can destroy teams like Washington. When we get the half-interested Dream, or the version where McCoughtry takes 30 shots, 20 of them contested jumpers, they can produce some pretty awful basketball.
Ultimately, I just about trust Atlanta to make it through. McCoughtry has a history of stepping up in the playoffs, and we might even see her break into a quick-jog to get back in transition defense once in a while (rather than her usual trudge). Atlanta’s defense has been strong and aggressive all year, even in most of their bad games, and I don’t trust the Mystics to be able to create enough points against them to win the series. If Atlanta are ever going to find the enthusiasm to show up and play to their optimum levels, the playoffs are surely the time. If they’re anywhere close to their best, Washington can’t live with them.
Atlanta 2-1, but with a blowout or two along the way.