For the 2010-11 offseason, Atlanta fans assumed that the Dream didn't need to be rebuilt so much as to be repaired.
Get a new point guard, the story went. Look for some help in the post for when Sancho Lyttle is scheduled to go overseas. Wait for Yelena Leuchanka to return.
Therefore, it was a surprise to Dream fans when Atlanta forward Angel McCoughtry's sprained left knee kept her from playing in the home opener against New York at Philips Arena. The Dream put up a good show without her, but fell to the visiting Liberty in overtime, 94-88
"Angel brings so much to our game, and it eats into our depth when she's not in the game," Atlanta Dream head coach Marynell Meadors said. "We've been a little bit unfortunate to have a couple of other players that haven't been in practices, and that was Izi and also Sancho. I thought that the timing was a little bit off today."
The Dream's shot 18 for 28 at the line for a 64.3 percent accuracy rate. Meadors stated that it was Atlanta's free throw shooting - or lack of it - that cost the Dream the victory. Even so, Atlanta almost succeeded without McCoughtry's 16.9 points per game.
With Coco Miller replacing McCoughtry the Liberty took the lead in the first quarter, up 18-11 at one point after Liberty point guard Leilani Mitchell missed one of two free throws. Dream center Erika de Souza picked up two quick first-quarter fouls and found herself missing half of the game. In her first game for the Dream, point guard Lindsey Harding found herself with one assist and two turnovers, and her trouble finding her teammates led to backup point guard Shalee Lehning playing the final two minutes of the first quarter. Atlanta guard Armintie Price made the transition game work for the Dream, which closed to 20-19 to end the first quarter.
De Souza's foul trouble left the Dream in a situation it hadn't been in long time - dominated on the offensive glass by an opponent. Atlanta struggled with winning the fight on the boards all afternoon. New York center Kia Vaughn had four offensive rebounds for the Liberty in the first half and was matching the Dream's starting five in total rebounds. New York's control of the paint took the pressure off playmaker Cappie Pondexter. Despite only four first half points from New York's All-Star point guard, the Liberty took a 40-38 lead into halftime.
"We were trying to trap Cappie - and we trapped her - but no one rotated in the back, and they got open looks, and they knocked them down," Meadors said.
Liberty head coach John Whisenant spoke about New York's post game. "We lost our two top post players in Taj McWilliams and Janel [McCarville], and that was as I understand - I wasn't here - Atlanta dominated our posts last year in the playoffs. So it was something we talked about, and we lost our two most proven rebounders. Obviously we had some other people who could rebound when they were motivated, so we've talked about rebounding since training camp started, and not against Atlanta, but against everyone."
Atlanta came back. Harding began to find her teammates and the Dream took a 49-47 lead on a bank shot by forward Sancho Lyttle with 6:19 left in the third. For the rest of regulation the lead switched hands several times with neither team able to pull ahead. Erika de Souza hit one of two free throws to put the Dream up 68-62 for their biggest lead with 5:19 remaining in the game but the Liberty answered back with five straight points. The Dream were up 76-74 with 33 seconds left when Sancho Lyttle stole the ball on a bad Pondexter pass, forcing the Liberty to foul Lindsey Harding. Harding hit one of two free throws to give Atlanta a 77-74 lead with 18.9 seconds left.
New York guard Nicole Powell answered on the other end with a desperation 3-pointer that went in to tie the game 77-77 with 8.8 seconds left. It was time for Lindsey Harding to play hero, and her drive down the court for the basket put Atlanta up 79-77 and left only 3.2 seconds on the clock. Game over?
Harding didn't think so. "No, I saw that there was too much time left and I said, 'oh no! I should have waited longer!'"
Atlanta's new point guard might have been right. Backup Liberty guard Sidney Spencer made a jump shot with 0.2 seconds left that tied the game 79-79.
"In this league anyone can come back," Harding said, "and that was an incredible shot she hit in the corner."
"Well that was kind of a broken play," Whisenant said. "We've practiced that play but we didn't deflect it off of Plenette Pierson and right into Sidney's hand. We do know that Sidney's a good shooter. She's a career plus-50 percent shooter, so she's going to make a lot of those."
Meadors thought that Harding - who had nine points and nine assists - played well in her first game. "I'd like for our point guards not to dribble the ball as much - it dribbles out the shot clock - so we're going to have to work on getting into the flow of our offense a little bit quicker."
It would be the only field goal that Spencer would attempt during the game for the Liberty but it would be enough to send the game into overtime. In the overtime, New York took the lead off a layup by starting forward Plenette Pierson - she would lead both teams with 25 points - and the Liberty never looked back. Pondexter earned four assists during the overtime. The Dream missed their first four shots of the overtime, and without McCoughtry they needed all the shooting they could get.
"Our defense gave us a chance to win, and ultimately it won it for us," Whisenant said.
Pondexter thought the key to the win was turnovers. "We had four in the second [half] compared to 12 in the first. We did a great job of containing de Souza, who had four rebounds. We out rebounded them by two rebounds which is critical for a great rebounding team like Atlanta and we stopped their transition game. I think that was the difference."
Four players for Atlanta scored in double figures. Starting forward Iziane Castro Marques led the Dream with 19 points, and Sancho Lyttle scored a double-double for Atlanta with 18 points and 11 rebounds, as well as scoring five points and four assists. Coco Miller scored 16 points on 7-for-14 shooting, and Armintie Price had a double-digit game with 13 points. Lindsey Harding came close to a double double with nine points and nine assists.
Pierson led all New York scorers with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Five players would score in double-digits for New York, including Powell for 17 points, Pondexter for 12, Mitchell for 13 and starting forward Essence Carson with 11 points. In addition to Pondexter's 12 points, her 11 assists gave her New York's second double-double.
* Yelena Leuchanka is supposed to arrive back in Atlanta in July, according to Marynell Meadors. Sancho Lyttle leaves after the New York road game on June 14th. As soon as Spain's Olympic chances are decided - one way or another - she will return. Meadors surmises that Lyttle might miss six games.
* Angel McCoughtry is still day-to-day. There is no assurance that she will be ready by Thursday against the Washington Mystics.
* The lead was tied 15 times and changed 13 times.
* Sancho Lyttle's attempted lob to Erika de Souza in the second quarter under the basket missed its target but found another one instead - the basket! It was the first 3-point shot scored by Lyttle in her WNBA career. Lyttle made five 3-point attempts during this game - four more attempts than she had made over her entire six-year regular season WNBA career.
* Meadors on the WNBA 15th season and those that can't imagine the WNBA's long-term survival. "You know what? They're still saying that to me. 'You think the WNBA's going to make it?' I said 'is 15 years enough'? I don't understand why people are still saying that, when you look out there and see eight or nine thousand people cheering the teams on, and it's not just in Atlanta, it's all over the league. So I think the league and the product is absolutely outstanding, and people just need to come and watch."
* Before the start of the 2011 season opener, Atlanta's WNBA Eastern Conference championship banner was raised at Philips Arena. All of the championships - conference and finals - of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks come during their time in St. Louis so this is Atlanta's first championship banner at Philips Arena.
* Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed was present at the opener.