There is something about hearing a team describe themselves that can quite easily make you believe in them even if the odds are stacked against them.
They can force you to take a second look at things that we might have taken for granted.
They're professional athletes, they're confident, and nobody makes it to the pinnacle of any sport with glaring insecurity.
In fact, all of that is why you go interview players to begin with -- rather than merely confirming your own beliefs, it's an opportunity to gain insight from an insider that you might not otherwise have.
Talking to Atlanta Dream players at practice along with my desire to simply see a good series regardless of the outcome forced me to take a different look at this series and dig deep for the possibilities in which the Dream could push this series to five games even when the Seattle Storm's dominance through the season seems to make that look impossible.
It's not necessarily that they have anything to convince you of right now. They've just been playing extremely well. The following are five reasons that the Dream could potentially push this series to five games.
5. The pressure is on the Storm
After tying the mark for best record in league history and remaining undefeated at home, the Storm have a lot more to lose in this situation than the Dream. Los Angeles Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones might have said it best before the team's matchup at KeyArena in their regular season finale: it would be a waste if the Storm didn't complete the season with a championship.
The Atlanta Dream on the other hand have little to lose: they limped into the playoffs losing six of seven games and little was expected of them as the four seed. To most people, it would be a surprise that they've even in this situation. Moreover, the only player who has actually seen court time in a championship series (Kelly Miller, Charlotte 2001; Phoenix 2007) has been out during the playoffs and is still listed as day-to-day. They are led by a second-year rising star who is as confident as they come, but never been on a deep run in the WNBA playoffs.
So in a sense, Storm assistant Jenny Boucek sees similarities between this young Atlanta franchise and the 2004 Storm team that won the championship.
"We lost six out of nine going into the playoffs in 2004, but we peaked at exactly the right time," said Boucek, who was an assistant with the Storm in 2004 before moving to Sacramento. "Sometimes when you have young stars, they don't even know what to be afraid of yet. So they're just free and easy and fearless and it can be an advantage. And Sue and Lauren were like that when I was here before - they were free and easy almost like big kids out there having fun. They weren't feeling any pressure. And I see that in the Atlanta team - they're not feeling any pressure, they're just free and easy and fearless."
The Storm only has two players remaining from that previous championship team and point guard Sue Bird wasn't as enthusiastic about the comparison, but sees where it could be useful.
"I definitely think ignorance can be bliss when it comes to playoff games and to Finals games," said Storm point guard Sue Bird. "If you don't know what to expect, you can't be intimidated by it, you can't be scared by it...I'm sure a lot of the Atlanta players, they're just gonna come out here and play. It's gonna be fun for them and they're going to play that way."
Dream guard Iziane Castro-Marques, who came to the Storm the year after the championship run, was even less certain about the comparison.
"The Seattle team that we had, all the players were young but had a lot of experience playing on the national team or overseas so it's a very different situation," said Castro-Marques. "Our team is young here and our Seattle team was mature even younger."
However, what regardless of how enthusiastic any of them were about a direct comparison, there is some consistent acknowledgement that the Dream are playing from the position of underdog no matter how you look at this series and that could certainly work to their advantage.
"We have no pressure," said Dream center Erika de Souza. "We were not expected to be here, but we did it and they are the ones that have to play at home and will show what they have to show. The pressure is on them. We just need to play how we did to get here and not with any pressure."
4. The Dream's depth
It might seem like a minor point, but the Dream go a little bit deeper than the Storm.
"We're both young, but I play a lot of my young ones," said Meadors before practice yesterday. "I don't think Seattle plays a lot of their young ones."
The Storm's rotation is normally about 8 or 9 players deep, but in Game One of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Mercury, Storm coach Brian Agler only used seven players (as did the Mercury). In contrast, seven players have been starters for the Dream this season either in the regular season or playoffs (injury-related changes aside) and Dream coach Marynell Meadors will quite readily go nine players deep.
"They're strong at every position and they're deep," said Agler. "They're deep and they play their depth probably as much as anyone in the league."
3. The Dream could simply outwork the Storm
Where the Dream's depth could have an effect on this series is on the interior. The Dream have been quite a force on the offensive boards during the post-season and they've had at least five players - including McCoughtry - who have crashed the boards hard this post-season. It was not uncommon to see teams during the Eastern Conference playoffs do well on the boards in spurts and then get overwhelmed for long stretches of time. Even if the way to keep the Dream off the boards sounds simple, it can be hard to do consistently.
"When it comes to boards, for me, it's just a desire to get it done," said Willingham. "That's pretty what it's going to be with them - which post players have a desire to get it done. Like sometimes it's gonna be where somebody is boxing somebody out and not worried about where the ball is. You gotta trust that your teammates are going to get the ball instead of you."
It's not entirely impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Dream just simply keep running fresh bodies in and out of the game that consistently crash the boards, get to loose balls, and catch the Storm in a lapse leading to a shift in momentum. Willingham, who was arguably the team's most statistically productive player off the bench this season, is one player who has had a couple of small injuries during the season and if she's less than 100% in fighting the Dream for boards it could hurt.
It seems unlikely that anybody could outwork the Storm for a full 40 minutes given their personnel and record this season, but when playing at their best it's been how the Dream thrive.
2. Angel McCoughtry could go all superstar on the Storm
Coming into the Finals averaging 28 points per game on 50.7% shooting, it's pretty much a given that McCoughtry is going to cause problems for the Storm. However, the intangibles she brings to the floor might have an impact even in the event she doesn't put up big numbers.
"She's somebody who has steadily gotten better," said Agler. "I think she contributes to that team other than statistics. She's becoming a vocal leader for them. I think she leads with her persistence and intensity she plays with. One thing you can on her [for] is she is always going to try to make something happen on both ends. And when the ball is in her hands, she's a definite threat to make things happen."
Defensively, that impact beyond the statistics is that McCoughtry is outstanding at playing the passing lanes. Offensively - whether in transition or the half-court - she demands so much attention that she can keep a defense on its heels.
"I don't know that there are many players in this league that can effectively contain McCoughtry in a one-on-one situation," said Darsch. "It's gonna have to be a team focus. It's gonna have to be we try to rotate people toward her, we rotate people on her as who's guarding her as the main responsibility and see if we can impose our will."
But going back to the statistics, what might be most frightening about McCoughtry during the playoffs is that she her shooting efficiency has gone up dramatically in the playoffs - her true shooting percentage of 61.53% is up over 10% above her regular season shooting efficiency - while her usage percentage - the percentage of the team's plays that she uses while on the court - has also increased. In other words, she's getting more efficient with more chances, which is unusual to say the least.
In the face of McCoughtry's improved efficiency throughout the playoffs, the Storm can't necessarily fall back on the fact that McCoughtry has shot poorly against them this season. Moreover, McCoughtry has a better idea of what to expect from the Storm defense now.
"I watched the film," said McCoughtry. "I think I was anxious and I just needed to take more time. I need to play the game and let it come...I've just got to find the open man. It's not hard. I think I've gotten a lot better about that towards the end of the season."
Although McCoughtry's numbers as a distributor have declined during the post-season, if she does find the open teammate, it could cause problems for the Storm. Throughout the season the teams the Storm have struggled the most with - even for brief periods during a game - are the ones that move the ball well to force the Storm defense to rotate and attack the gaps.
"The other thing is, if you pay too much attention to her then you're leaving other people open as well and that is not a good thing," said Agler, when asked about stopping McCoughtry. "So we're going to need great individual efforts, but we're also going to have to play great as a team to do that."
It happened both during the regular season finale and in the first round against the Los Angeles Sparks for stretches and although it hasn't been a strength for the Dream this season, with a player like McCoughtry on the wing it could spell trouble.
McCoughtry has demonstrated that she can take over a game and carry her team to victory and the Storm aren't exactly ignoring that fact
1. The Dream cause turnovers and get out in transition
When the Storm have struggled this season, the most consistent factor has been turnovers. And they once the door opens, they seem to come from all over the place, from over-aggression to bad passes. Given that the Storm are a team that is at their best when they run through their sets and move the ball well rather than going one-on-one, if they get caught turning the ball over they can get behind quickly. That is essentially what happened this season when the Mercury had them down by season-highs of 19 and 18 points at different times.
What's different about the Dream compared to the Mercury is that they want to force turnovers. And during the playoffs, the Dream have continued to force turnovers while decreasing the number of turnovers they commit.
"They've just had a total personality change from the end of the season to the playoffs," said Darsch. "They've been very aggressive on both ends of the floor. They've changed their starting lineup and it includes people that are aggressive and quick and defensive-minded. So they're just everywhere, kind of, on the defensive end of the floor."
If the Dream can use their defensive prowess to do what the Mercury have done but also be better defensively, they could certainly beat the Storm with their aggressive transition game and avoid the sweep that so many people think is more likely than a five game series.
"Their players are coming down and looking to score," said Boucek when discussing the Dream's transition game. "A lot of times they don't even look to make a pass. They're just going and they've got the speed to do that. So it's going to be a fun challenge."
After watching the Indiana Fever unexpectedly taking the Mercury to five games last season, it's not out of the question that another Eastern Conference challenger could repeating the feat against a Western Conference team that seems destined for glory
"We're meant to be here," said McCoughtry. "It isn't a fluke. We worked hard to get where we are and we're not done yet."
Nevertheless, even taking every minute possibility into account, it remains hard to imagine the Storm losing this series and not necessarily because they are just so dominant. The Storm have come from behind multiple times this season. They've won ugly. They've won on the road. They've stolen games that they arguably shouldn't have won. They win a lot no matter what the circumstances.
"They have kind of crossed over that ‘feeling pressure' point to a maturity," said Boucek when discussing what has changed in Bird and Jackson since that 2004 championship run. "I think they've learned how to handle pressure by now. It's been long enough of the pressure that they know how to handle that. I've seen them all year. I don't see them looking like they're experiencing the negative effects of pressure; I think they're actually enjoying it and embracing being the hunted in this goal that they have."
As confident as the Dream are, it's hard to imagine this one going five games much less witnessing what would be an historic Storm upset. Yet given the way the Dream are playing, it's also hard to imagine them getting swept.
How many games will the WNBA Finals be?
Three (34 votes)
Four (62 votes)
Five (22 votes)
I don't make predictions (even on anonymous polls) (6 votes)
124 total votes