Coach Nicki Collen wasn’t liking what she was seeing from her Atlanta Dream this past Sunday.
The team was coming off of three straight blowout losses and a week of practices where they’d stepped back into fundamentals. They were hosting the league-best Connecticut Sun, with whom they usually match up well. But Collen saw the same thing on the floor that she’d seen for the previous 10 days: listless play.
“The first three and a half minutes looked like the last three games,” she said.
So Collen pulled all but starter Tiffany Hayes and put four reserve players on the court with her. Then slowly, Atlanta began to crawl back.
They were behind 12 points at halftime, and in the third quarter both starters and reserves worked together to chip away at Connecticut’s lead, trimming it to as little as three points midway through, and maintaining a four-point gap for almost two game minutes.
The fourth quarter was much the same, as the Dream clamped down with the defensive intensity got them within a couple buckets of the WNBA finals last year. They held the Sun to 28 percent shooting, as the two teams were tied at 57 for 2:37. Though the visitors escaped with a 65-59 win, Collen said she felt like Atlanta turned a corner in the match up.
“The four we brought out played with a different energy, and the starters responded to that – it pulled everybody up,” she said. “Then we played like a dream team.”
Collen is heartened, though she said work lies ahead.
“I feel like we are headed down the right path with that, but we could use a good first quarter,” she said.
The rough 1-4 start from a team that finished the 2018 regular season on a 15-2 run wasn’t what anyone expected, even considering All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry is still out as she rehabs from a torn ACL she suffered last August. Seven other players are back, with plenty of veteran experience and a strong camaraderie.
But injuries began calling two days before this year’s opener, when Hayes rolled her ankle. She has able to play sparingly, but has averaged 9.2 points per game, down from a team-best 17.2 in 2018. Forward Jessica Breland has been slowed by a groin injury, and guard Alex Bentley has been hampered by a pulled quadricep. Forward Monique Billings missed a game with a hip issue.
“Not that the injuries are an excuse for our performance, but it has all affected us getting into a rhythm,” veteran guard Renee Montgomery said.
Last season Atlanta allowed opponents 80 or more points only eight times; this year that number is already four games. Offensively, they are shooting a league-worst 36.6 percent, and are grabbing only 10.2 offensive rebounds per game. These two factors hobble the precision that the Dream’s defense relies upon in the half court. The under-performing offense isn’t just failing to score: it’s effectively neutralizing their biggest strength.
Another factor in their rocky beginning has been a mental downward spiral, according to Collen. After winning their first game, Atlanta hosted the defending champion Seattle Storm, who are down two starters, and they lost to the titleholders by 16 points. The next day they were in Washington D.C. taking on the team that beat them in last year’s playoff semifinals, in their newly-remodeled arena. The Mystics drubbed the Dream, 96-75.
Two losses within 24 hours took a toll.
“Frankly, we let those (match ups) get to us in the next game,” Collen said.
Five days later, the Las Vegas Aces routed Atlanta on their home court, 92-69. By the time they took on the Sun, Collen said she was “looking for signs of life” from her team.
“Once the bench players got everyone back in it, we competed at the level I expect us to compete at every single day,” she said. “We found a way to take it from a 12-point game to a four-point game, and then a tie game.”
The second-year coach was heartened.
“Sure, it was a disappointed locker room, but they had to be proud of how they competed,” she said. “It became not about effort, but execution, and that’s always better.”
Collen knows that the Dream need to clean up play on both sides of the floor.
“We need good synergy, and we need to guard some people,” she said. “It’s important that a team has synergy, both offensively and defensively.”
But the road won’t get easier.
Atlanta is integrating third-year forward Nia Coffey into the rotation, as well as rookie forward Marie Gulich. Collen moved guard Brittney Sykes to the bench against Connecticut because her shooting percentage is down. And soon Bentley will leave for three weeks for Eurobasket competition, where she plays for Belarus.
“We have to find a way to get over the hump,” Collen said. “I believe in them.”
So does Montgomery.
She pointed to last summer, when the Dream began 8-9 before going on an eight-game winning streak and losing only two more games before the playoffs.
“Before we went on that run, we had no idea we were about to do it,” Montgomery said. “We are 1-4 right now, but there’s no reason to panic. We’ve been playing in one gear, and we have to shift to a high gear.”
Atlanta players formed close bonds last season, and had a good balance between working hard and having fun with each other. Montgomery said that foundation will help the returning core and the new players “figure each other out” this year.
“I always think we’re going to come together – I’m always optimistic,” Montgomery said. “We turned a corner last year, and we have to keep doing that.
The Dream travels to Dallas Saturday to take on the Wings.
Travis Lund contributed to this report