Atlanta Dream pushing for playoffs with new faces, and a new vibe

Monique Billings and other Atlanta Dream players slap hands with teammates leaving the game floor. Atlanta Dream photo.

The Atlanta Dream returned to practice from the Olympic break last week with fresh perspectives, renewed effort and different personnel, as they aim for a playoff run.

Since they played their last game three weeks ago, the 11th-place, 6-13 Dream saw interim head coach Mike Petersen depart, and lost forward Cheyenne Parker for the season due to pregnancy. Prior to that, they had lost starting guard Tiffany Hayes for a month due to an MCL tear, and starting guard Chennedy Carter was suspended indefinitely due to conduct detrimental to the team.

New interim coach Darius Taylor said the team, which ended the first half of the season on a four-game losing streak, needed a break. And so far, that time away has paid dividends.

“It’s like a restart,” Taylor said. “Players have come back with great energy. They have been really professional in how they’ve approached practice, and working on the things we need to be better at.”

“Every team deals with adversity, and we’ve maybe had a little more than others. But we’ve got a tough, resilient group that comes and does their jobs every day.”

Atlanta picked up veteran Candice Dupree, who played the first 16 games of the year for the Seattle Storm, to replace Parker. Taylor said they are “working” with Carter on her return to the team, and that Hayes is making progress in rehab.

The talent-laden roster has plenty of scoring power, but averages just 32 rebounds per game – and only 23 of them defensive. Taylor said it is on that end of the floor that the Dream need to improve upon.

“We’ve got players who can make plays, so I don’t worry about the offense that much,” he said. “We have to improve to win ball games, we have to improve in all areas defensively.”

Taylor said players have worked hard in practice.

“They understand the things we need to get better at: communication, defense, and transition defense, especially,” he said. “Those are the things we’re going to continue to harp on, and the offense will take care of itself.”

Dupree, who has played in the WNBA for 16 years, played at Temple University when Taylor was an assistant coach there. She said she is taking a more vocal role with her new team than she has in the past.

“For most of my career, I’ve lead by example. But I will talk to these younger players,” Dupree said.

Four-year veteran Monique Billings said she and her teammates are happy to see Taylor, who came to the team just before she did, take the reins.

“Darius believes in us, and it’s great to have a coach who believes in us, who will fight for us and isn’t going to give up on us,” Billings said.

Taylor said the Dream’s goal is to be one of the top eight teams to make the playoffs by the end of the regular season. Getting that done will take a methodical approach.

“We have to take it one game at a time,” Taylor said. “We will work hard in camp to try and get better in certain areas. We’re not counting ourselves out. We’re only a few games back of some of the others in that eighth spot.”

Dupree, who said one of her jobs is to help push Atlanta into the playoffs, is optimistic about their chances.

“The energy is great,” she said. “They had some difficulties leading up to the Olympic break, but it’s a great group.”