For WNBA fans, it's probably safe to say that the nationally televised East-West battle between the 6-0 Atlanta Dream and 5-1 Seattle Storm, was something of a letdown after all the anticipation leading up to it.
The experience appeared no more pleasant for the Dream.
After an Angel McCoughtry turnover with 15 seconds left in the third quarter of their 90-72 loss to the Storm on Tuesday, Atlanta Dream coach Marynell Meadors refrained from needling the refs further.
Instead, she walked toward the baseline with a distant stare, her arms folded and her back to the action as the Storm ran up the court in the opposite direction. Seconds after Meadors turned around, Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird shook Dream counterpart Shalee Lehning and split evaded a rotating Sancho Lyttle on what looked like a pick and roll set up. With an open lane in front of her and the clock running out, Bird sort of lunged to the basket to put a layup high off the backboard and through the net with .3 seconds left in the quarter to put the Storm back up by 13.
Not that the game was over at that point, but the expressions on the faces of Dream coaches and players was one of exasperation -- it was just one of those nights where nothing seemed to be going their way.
It was the Dream's fourth game on an early season Western Conference road trip and both coaches cited defense and rebounding as the keys to the game. Defensively, the Dream struggled with forward Lauren Jackson raining threes on them every time they seemed to be getting close and Storm perimeter players hitting the gaps. Offensively, league-leading scorer McCoughtry missed her fist seven shots. Then post players Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza ended up sitting out for long stretches of the game with foul trouble.
"That didn't hurt us any," said Storm coach Brian Agler about Atlanta's early foul trouble, successfully maintaining a straight face. "That did not hurt us."
Meadors noted prior to the game that Lyttle and de Souza were part of the team's returning core that made them so successful, particularly on the offensive boards. So losing them did hurt the Dream a bit.
"I gotta have them in the game and they can't foul," said Meadors after the loss. "They were just not aggressive enough in there tonight. But looking ahead, we've got Sylvia Fowles and whoever else is on their team against Chicago on Friday night."
Ultimately, it was just a perfect storm of bad circumstances for the Dream. That's not to take anything away from the Storm, who obviously played good enough defense to hold the hot Dream to 35.6% shooting.
"You don't want to take away from what we did - obviously I don't want to take away from what we did - but I'm sure they're better than that as well," said Storm guard Tanisha Wright. "But we did a lot of really, really good things tonight to make it look like they weren't as good. So I think that was part of it."
So we can add those "really, really good things" to the list of things that doomed the Dream. And indeed the Storm did enough really, really good things to deserve the attention they are now getting as championship contenders. As the league's only one loss team, it's hard not to consider it some sort of statement to the rest of the league to topple the league's last undefeated team.
"Of course - they were 6-0, they're the talk of the town," said Storm forward Swin Cash when asked about whether there was any special significance to beating the Dream. "So for us - even though you don't want to be like this early in the season - this is a statement game because it's a team that's been playing really well and they beat some pretty good teams. So for us if we want to be on the top and we want to be the ones that everyone's chasing, it's good for us to come out and have a performance like we did tonight."
And so following that reasoning, it might also sound reasonable to simply dismiss the Dream's surprising start as merely an illusion put on by a team playing over their heads. However, I would argue that there's nothing about losing one game under tough circumstances that says the Dream are just one of those pack of teams chasing the Storm. Instead, the real test this early in the season is probably how they respond in that game against the Chicago Sky on Friday night that Meadors mentioned.
Coincidentally, the Storm's win against the Dream was a statement game not only because of how they played on Tuesday, but also because of how they responded to an ugly 84-75 loss last Thursday...against the Sky.
The real similarities between the two games are somewhat loose: both teams entered undefeated with franchise-best starts, it was on the road, and things just ended up not going their way. But the key similarity - though perhaps surface level - is that the Storm had a bad game.
"We learned we can't play how we played against Chicago and have a high level of success - that was obvious," said Agler prior to the Dream game. "We just didn't defend, it took us so long to get going offensively. Everybody had a part in that - I don't know if our game plan was up to task, I don't know if we were still thinking about-there was such a high emphasis on starting 4-0 and everybody was talking about that here."
So rather than dwell on the loss are lose confident, the Storm just looked ahead.
"No team wants to play like that, but sometimes you have those games and sometimes it happens," said Wright. "Five games into the season, first of all, you're not supposed to be at your peak five games into the season. So we had a little let off."
Of course, every professional team says that, usually in the form of a convenient cliché: the old we're just taking it game-by-game statement that seems to lose value every time it's uttered, true or not. What seems to separate Losing teams from winning teams and winners from champions is how they respond to losses.
"We had that little, I guess, blooper with Chicago, but games like that are gonna happen and how you respond is even more important," said Cash. "And we didn't just respond after one game: I think we responded in San Antonio and then to come back here and play as consistent as we did, I think that shows a lot of character for us early on."
Of course the Storm bounced back after the Sky loss, getting back into the win column with a dominant 28 point win in San Antonio on Sunday and following that up with the big nationally televised win over previously undefeated Atlanata on Tuesday. Not only that but the Dream game was arguably their best game of the season.
Now the Dream find themselves entering their Chicago game in the same way the Storm left Chicago: rebounding from a bad loss.
"That's exactly what we said: we just threw this game out, we're going to focus on Chicago, and it was a bad game for us and we just gotta move on," said Meadors when told about how the Storm responded to the Chicago loss. "It's the seventh game of the season we got a long way to go."
It's obvious that the Dream are a talented team - it's not just the fact that they were 6-0, but the process of getting there. This is an impressive team assembled in Atlanta.
"If they don't win 20+ games I'd be shocked. They're going to win a ton of games," said Agler. "They're a tough matchup. I know how tough they are to defend and that's for us that we feel like we can defend people and it's still a tremendous pressure on you. And it's because they can score so easy - they'll turn you over, they can rebound, they can get to the free throw line, they can get in transition. A lot of the points they score are when the defense isn't set. And that's the sign of a very good offensive team when you can score like that."
However, if we want to know about the Dream's character - their potential to turn that 20 win potential in 20 actual wins - the Sky game will be the one to watch. Of course the Sky are riding their own surge of rebound wins and are clearly gaining their own confidence after an 0-4 start. It's the chance to see not only how the Dream respond, but also - if they're anything like the Storm - a chance to see how strong their leadership is.
"I just really enjoyed that response," said Agler about the Storm's response after the Sky game. "And it has a lot to do with our leadership of Sue and Lauren and Swin - those three have been through it, they've totally bought into what we're doing. That's huge."
So if we want to make true proclamations about who the best team in the league is based upon a head-to-head matchup, perhaps we should wait until August 10th when these two teams meet in Atlanta. If they are still at the top of the standings, by then we'll know a little more about their respective championship potential and character. If the Dream are anything like the Storm, the Key Arena let down is only one point on a broader trajectory of growth.
"Obviously you don't wanna be so down and way up - you kinda just wanna be climbin, and climbin, and climbin," said Wright. "So we had a little let off in that game but you can see us now: we're trying to get back to where we're climbin and growing until we are hitting our peak."