It might seem like a long time ago when the surprising 6-0 Atlanta Dream came to KeyArena in June for a showdown against the 5-1 Seattle Storm on national television at what seemed at the time to be a potential WNBA Finals preview.
The third-year franchise led by a second-year star looked like the Eastern Conference counterpart to the Storm's emergent dominance in the West -- a friend in Los Angeles who saw the Dream discomfit the Sparks told me, "They were tossing bombs down court like ol school LA Raiders -- deep balls for layups."
However, the Dream took a 90-72 beating at the hands of a Storm team still not quite at their best and seemed to come to a grinding halt, a fate suffered by more than one team in KeyArena this season.
So the reason it might feel like it was so long ago that the surprising Dream would not have made for a surprising opponent for the Storm in the Finals was not necessarily that three months is really that long, but because they left Seattle looking shaken -- they lost three of the following four games and eventually ended the regular season losing six of seven games and finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference. From afar, it was almost as though the Dream entered the playoffs having deteriorated to the point limping into the playoffs in almost the exact opposite of the hopeful fashion they began the season.
Nevertheless, the Dream managed to make an impression on Storm coach Brian Agler that night.
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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."
Although the Dream finished the regular season 19-15 -- neither meeting Agler's 20 win expectations nor consistently playing the dynamic style of basketball that he described -- the Dream managed to pull it together in time recapture some of that early season magic and enter the Finals undefeated thus far in the playoffs.
"They've made some adjustments here of late," said Agler after practice on Wednesday. "They end up getting back to their main lineup at times but they play a lot of people...I just think they're playing with a lot of confidence right now. They've won four in a row. I think they're playing real loose and they're as good as there is right now."
So despite the erratic play throughout the regular season that hardly provided reason for confidence in the Dream's chances to get to the Finals, it's also quite clear from their 2010 portfolio that this team is a bit of a wild card. When they're playing with confidence they can both dismantle teams and withstand the pressure of close games. When they're off, it can get ugly.
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"It's a game of errors," said Dream coach Marynell Meadors when asked about some of their early turnovers. "Whoever makes the least errors wins the game."
Obviously, the Storm made less errors overall than the Dream, who also had early turnover problems, foul trouble, and shooting struggles to say the least (4-22 in the first quarter).
So what exactly do we make of this rather inconsistent Dream team full of potential and their chances of beating an extremely consistent Storm team full of veterans?
What the Dream need to do to win
Just clear your mind of any thoughts of someone "stopping" Jackson -- even when the Storm are at their worst, Jackson consistently puts up numbers that some players only aspire to have for one night of their career. Her worst game of the season was a 12 point and 3 rebound performance in a loss against the non-playoff Minnesota Lynx; the performance was so singular that it can easily be written off as a fluke. In other words, when Storm center Lauren Jackson won the MVP it was as much for being a completely indefensible player this season as being the best player on the best team.
So what makes this series interesting is that both teams essentially share the same strength relative to their opponents: offensive rebounding percentage. However, as Agler has alluded to early in the season, what the Dream do so well is force turnovers and get out in transition for easy fast break points off of turnovers. As one observer said, there's nothing complicated about the Dream's transition game -- it's a mass of athleticism going right to the rim on the first attempt and crashing the boards for second and even third attempts.
The common theme in the Storm's losses this regular season -- or even bad stretches of play during wins -- was turnovers. Led by All-Star point guard Sue Bird, the Storm will surgically pick apart almost any defense once they get into their offense and completely stifle opposing offenses when playing halfcourt defense. In other words, the Dream's strength of creating turnovers and extending possessions with offensive rebounds is crucial to beat the Storm -- if they can keep the Storm unsettled and unbalanced while putting up points, an upset is not entirely unfathomable.
What the Storm need to do to win
Conversely, what seems to give the Storm a nearly 40% chance of sweeping this series is that the Storm have similar strengths to the Dream except they are a much better offensive team. When they hit that state of supreme focus or "flow", it's extremely difficult to stop them from moving the ball and executing their offense to find gaps in the defense, man or zone. If they get in a rhythm where they're making shots, not turning the ball over, and thus forcing the Dream to take the ball out from under the basket suddenly there is no Dream transition game and a significant part of their offense.
Defensively, playing the Dream is far more difficult than it sounds: find their post players, get position, and box out.
What the New York Liberty -- and particularly 6'2" forward Plenette Pierson -- showed in the Eastern Conference Finals is that it's possible to limit the damage the Dream do on the boards by outworking 6'5" Erika de Souza and 6'4" Sancho Lyttle. The problem lies in trying to do it play after play without getting worn down. However, with Jackson, Camille Little, and Le'coe Willingham as well as Swin Cash who is no slouch on the boards, the Storm have multiple players who are adept at doing the dirty work in the paint and getting rebounds. While the Dream might be bigger in the post, the Storm might be a tad quicker overall and that could end up making the difference.
Prediction: Storm in four
If you're familiar with the played out saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then this pick should trouble you: I've picked the Dream to guy out one game at home and lose in each of their first two series. They weren't playing well entering the playoffs and they seemed to be up against teams on a roll.
Yet against the Storm, it's hard not to feel confident enough to persevere and stick with the pattern, not letting past results obscure what's ahead.
Against both the Liberty and the Washington Mystics, the Dream exploiting their advantages on the boards and in transition to great effect. Those advantages will not be so easy to exploit against the Storm who were the best in the league at preventing points of turnovers and fast break points as well as points in the paint. While the Dream were the best in the league at getting second chance points and the Storm were eigth in second chance points allowed, the Storm have also been the best rebounding team in the league by percentage meaning they have the proven ability to keep the Dream off the boards and shut down a major feature of their game. If those things occur and Dream guard Angel McCoughtry is left trying to create one-on-one in halfcourt situations, she could score 25 points per game and the Dream would struggle to win a game against the Storm.
None of that is to mention that with the KeyArena mystique on their side, the Dream could be heading back home to Atlanta with a 0-2 deficit on their hands and on the brink of elimination.
That said and with my track record with the Dream this off-season -- as well as the fact that the Indiana Fever surprised most people by pushing the WNBA Finals to five games last year -- the prediction should be taken with a grain of salt.
Ultimately, a lot is going to depend on what Dream team shows up and it's been difficult to predict that in 2010.