Heading into last night’s Game 3, the Atlanta Dream didn’t just have the weight of being down 2-0 on their shoulders. After suffering sweeps at the hands of Seattle and Minnesota in 2011 and 2012, the franchise was 0-8 in Finals games. Plus they hadn’t just lost the two games back in Minnesota – they’d been stuffed by 25 in each of them. They were fighting against history, against embarrassment, and against the all-conquering Minnesota Lynx team that was looking to complete an undefeated postseason with their third consecutive series sweep. It was a daunting task, and with Philips Arena hosting Disney on Ice, they didn’t even have their regular home venue to boost their chances.
At times in the first two games, it looked like Dream head coach Fred Williams had run out of ideas on how to challenge the Lynx. But he decided to try his third different starting lineup in three games, with Le’coe Willingham coming back in at power forward ahead of Aneika Henry (or Tiffany Hayes, if they’d wanted to go small again). It was a thoroughly random roll of the dice, seeing as Willingham isn’t really the kind of player who can turn a series, but you couldn’t blame him for trying something different. It didn’t work out too well in the opening moments, though. Janel McCarville – nominally being guarded by Willingham – decided to be particularly aggressive offensively, and drilled a series of jumpers. Willingham wasn’t doing anything particularly badly – helping away from McCarville is something you’re basically supposed to do against Minnesota – but the Lynx center fired away and refused to miss. It was clear around midseason this year that the Lynx coaching staff had asked McCarville to be more of a threat offensively, so that teams couldn’t cheat off her quite so egregiously, and she started taking some of those wide open jumpers teams offered her. Now she was stepping up in Game 3 of the Finals. This Lynx team really can hurt you from all angles.
It looked like we might be in for another blowout in the opening minutes. The McCarville barrage was backed up by a couple of buckets for Maya Moore, while Angel McCoughtry was out of control at the other end. She started with a hideous jacked three with 16 on the shot clock barely hit the rim, before an airball on a 1-on-3 baseline move and a couple of desperately soft turnovers when she drove into heavy traffic. There’s a thin line between ‘carrying your team’ and ‘trying to do too much’. Often, frankly, the difference is whether the bad shots you take go in or not. But Angel was dominating the ball, and it wasn’t working at all. Williams took a timeout after barely five minutes of play, with his team already trailing 13-3.
McCoughtry was summarily benched, in the hope that she’d calm down, or relax, or just get out of her own team’s way. And it worked. The Dream started running their offense through Erika de Souza in the low post, something that we should’ve seen more of in this entire series (although the Lynx admittedly make it very difficult with their heavy strong-side help). With McCarville resting on the bench, it was Rebekkah Brunson trying to guard her, and for a few minutes Erika was dominant. She was finishing inside, or hitting little turnarounds, or unbalancing the Lynx defense so much with her threat to score that gaps opened up for players like Armintie Herrington on cuts and offensive boards. Erika can also be an emotional leader for this team, and once she was involved in the offense she started jumping around, waving her arms and encouraging the crowd at Atlanta’s temporary home in the Gwinnett Center. The Dream had some life after all.