The Dallas Wings have seen it all this season.
They’ve won close games and they’ve lost close games. They’ve blown out opponents, and they’ve been blown out. They have had two three-game losing streaks and one four-game winning streak. The Wings reached the halfway point in their season schedule several days before any other team, which included two games each against the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks and the top-ranked Minnesota Lynx.
Their cast of players has changed, and changed again, and through it all they have clawed and fought hard in every match up, from buzzer to buzzer.
Going into the last week before All-Star break, Dallas is 9-10 with the eighth-best record in the WNBA. And with more rest between games the last two weeks, they are poised to make a playoff push with their new defensive focus.
Assistant coach Bridget Pettis said the biggest difference she sees with this year’s team is that they are, at last, playing team basketball.
“It’s what we have been trying to get to for a long time; to get past individual basketball and individual ideas and things, and be down for the team,” Pettis said. “That’s what I see this team is really buying into.”
The Wings have given every team they face a challenge because of their defensive tenacity, which has spawned more offense. Fifth-year veteran point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith has led the way for the young team by pushing the pace on court and scoring. Two weeks ago she was the Western Conference player of the week after putting up a franchise-record seven three-point shots in a game.
Diggins-Smith said the team, which includes a league-high five rookies, has had to learn on the job because of their packed game schedule.
“We haven’t been able to practice playing so many games, so we had to learn literally in the game,” she said. “Give the coaching staff credit for getting the personnel here that we need.”
One of those new players is rookie Allisha Gray, who has started all 19 games and is averaging 12.6 points per outing behind Diggins-Smith and forward Glory Johnson. She is also the team’s third-leading rebounder. Gray has won rookie of the month for both May and June, and leads all rookies in scoring.
Dallas coach Fred Williams said Gray has even more room for improvement.
“As a first-year player starting for us, there’s a lot of learning curves as she (encounters) different defenses,” Williams said. “Each game she gets a better and better feel for the game and defensively, she’s always getting after it.”
The franchise also drafted Kaela Davis, Saniya Chong, Evelyn Akhator and Breanna Lewis. They kept all five and are the first team to keep all of their draftees since the Lynx in 2004. Given their circumstances, it was understandable.
Diggins-Smith tore her ACL in 2015, and didn’t seem up to full speed last year. Johnson was injured twice last summer, spraining her MCL in the second incident, which put her out for the rest of the season. In November, dynamic guard Aerial Powers underwent surgery to repair a torn hip labrum. She has not yet played this year.
Paris was injured five games into this season, and just returned to the court last week. Johnson, who filled in for Paris, has recently stepped up her production and looks like she did before she was injured.
“If we rotate and make sure we continue to focus on defense, offense will come,” Johnson said. “But as long as we are playing good defense and frustrating other teams, then we can make our runs just like they make theirs.”
Fourth-year forward Theresa Plaisance has also risen to the occasion after being inserted into the starting lineup after three games. She is the fifth-leading scorer and put up a season-high 19 points three weeks ago. Veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly has been a steady presence for the team in her starting role. Newcomer Kayla Thornton has been a reliable force off the bench, and Davis and Chong have also logged valuable minutes.
Plaisance said Williams has done a good job of bringing the team together, and added that the rookies are quick learners.
“I think our patience with the ball is a lot better,” Plaisance said. “You see us really moving the ball offensively and defensively, and as the season goes on I think you will see us trustworthy on the help side.”
“We have really been helping each other on defense and in getting back on transition defense, and I think that is something we really struggled with in the past.”
Dallas has back-to-back match ups with the Chicago Sky this week, playing in Chicago Wednesday and then at home Sunday.