For Atlanta’s fans, coming to terms with a 73-67 Game Three loss in the WNBA Finals on their home court to the Minnesota Lynx – the third of three losses to the new WNBA champions – will be a difficult process.
I’ve already gone through the classic Kubler-Ross stages myself.
Denial: Last year, the Atlanta Dream could console itself with the old saying, "we’re just glad to be here". No Atlanta fan suspected that the Dream would end the 2010 season fighting with the Seattle Storm for the WNBA title. The Seattle Storm were a tough team, one which cut through the Western Conference like a buzzsaw through bamboo, slowing down only at the end to clean the blades. Most experienced observers predicted that the Dream would be swept in 2010 – they had lost both of the regular season games against the Storm. To play the tightest WNBA Finals in history – the two teams were separated by eight points in aggregate over the course of three games – was such an accomplishment that it was the closest thing to a triumph without having one. Dream fans had the knowledge that they made Seattle fight for everything it earned and that Atlanta was no pushover.
With Minnesota, it was slightly different. Even though neither team had won a championship, the Dream had visited the finals first. The Lynx had swept the back-to-back season series, but Sancho Lyttle was present for neither of those games and those games could be consigned to Atlanta’s 3-9 opening slump. (Atlanta’s record after Minnesota was 1-6.) Furthermore, Lynx fans appeared to be celebrating a WNBA title prematurely . Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s remark about looking forward to "dessert" in the Finals unintentionally implied that beating the Dream would be light work, something she definitely did not intend to imply. The Lynx hadn’t faced much adversity in the 2011 season and there was no expectation in Minnesota that Atlanta would be much different.
Even with the Dream’s loss in Game One – well, no Erika de Souza. At one point in Game One Atlanta led by as many as seven points in the third quarter. But in the fourth quarter, the Lynx answered back with a 13-0 run over four minutes that the Dream will never get back. This run made up the margin of Atlanta’s 88-74 Game One loss. Decision, Minnesota.
That was okay. No De Souza. Asterisk.
Anger: Game Two was an abomination. Truth be told, the bad calls went in both directions and a random number generator could have substituted for either of Sue Blauch, Kurt Walker and Lamont Simpson. (Or maybe, all of them.) What might have been an exciting game – both teams almost hit triple digits in Atlanta’s 101-95 loss – was more dependent on a referee’s whistle than a championship game should be. And those whistles were turning red hot under the mantra "call everything".
Atlanta went to the free throw line 32 times. Minnesota took 46 visits. At times, it seemed like the game could have been filmed on a single loop of film, a shot of a referee blowing a whistle and someone going to the free throw line, a clip played on repeat.
Any game that depended on free throw shooting was sure to tilt against Atlanta. Minnesota’s free throw shooting was nothing to brag about but Atlanta’s was worse. Free throw shooting had been one of Atlanta’s weaknesses all year and now that weakness would take center stage. The Lynx hit 82 percent at the line in Game Two and the Dream hit 65 percent. Atlanta’s fans had seen poor free throw shooting from the Dream all year but to have it underlined by seemingly capricious referees was too cruel.
There was a lot to be angry at. There were some hot words shared online between Minnesota’s fans and Atlanta’s fans, the former giddy over going up 2-0 and the latter furious over the officiating…a fury seemingly shared by Dream head coach Marynell Meadors and her players. Minnesota fans appeared to discount the role in the loss that the officials played, feeling that such an argument was a slam on the balance of the Lynx’s lineup and on their season’s successes. Atlanta’s fans felt that Minnesota’s were wearing blinders about the imbalance caused by the officiating; Minnesota’s felt that Atlanta was just looking for excuses.
Of course, the Dream fans were mad at the officiating. That goes without saying. But Atlanta felt slighted in several quarters. Angel McCoughtry’s 38-point record setting WNBA Finals performance was slighted in favor of Seimone Augustus’s near-equal 36 point game. The media wanted to tell the story of Maya Moore and the long-suffering Lynx as opposed to the story of underdog Atlanta’s second try at the brass ring. It seemed that prognosticators from many quarters at various times of the year – after the opening season slump, from Indiana when de Souza had gone with the Brazilian national team – had been digging a grave for Atlanta all year and asking the Dream if they’d please hurry up and die now. The Dream were off script and were refusing to play their allotted roles.
But Atlanta’s fans were also mad at themselves. Once more, Atlanta had held a double-digit lead before giving it away. They took a five point lead into the fourth quarter on enemy territory and couldn’t hang on. Iziane Castro Marques took six free throws – twice from being fouled during two 3-point attempts – and went a grand total of 1-for-6 at the line, taking the first triplet in the first quarter with an apparent nonchalance and missing all three of them. (If this were vaudeville, the giant hook would have come from Stage Left.)
If you can’t hit free throws – can you really call yourself a championship team? It was as if the Lynx were offering up Game Two on a silver platter and the Dream were sending it back to the waiter.
Bargaining: With two losses and the prospect of being swept in the Finals a second year, it was time for Atlanta fans to start praying to the basketball gods. Atlanta had fought through adversity all year. The Dream had to wait for Sancho Lyttle to return from overseas. McCoughtry started the season with a scoring slump (and was probably fighting an injury) that ended up costing her the league scoring title to Diana Taurasi by a fraction of a point, a point slump which might have also damaged McCoughtry’s MVP chances. Iziane Castro Marques had had a horrible year where her scoring average dropped from 16.9 points per game in 2010 to 7.6 in 2011. Castro Marques would spend most of the regular season coming off the bench.
It took a few games for point guard Lindsey Harding to figure out how to play on the Dream, and this time frame accounted for part of the slump. Shalee Lehning suffered a right knee ACL injury in Connecticut and went out for a season. There was a time when the Dream experimented with Kelly Mazzante as a long-range sharpshooter; the experiment ended when Mazzante took 13 shots from behind the 3-point line over six games…and only hit one of them. Paris was a fan favorite, but the more Atlanta fans saw of her the more they recognized her limitations. Yelena Leuchanka, our backup post player during the 2010 season, made it to Eurobasket for 2011 but not to Atlanta.
Even so, Atlanta had found a way to make up for its weaknesses over the season. Maybe they’d figure out a way to do it again. In Indiana, they got some help from the fickle basketball gods when Atlanta fought its way to a Game Two Eastern Conference Finals win without de Souza and when the Fever’s Tamika Catchings was injured – it seemed that the circumstances Indiana and Atlanta were facing in Game Three were the reverse of those in Game Two.
At the end of Game Two, Minnesota’s Taj McWilliams-Franklin sprained her right knee after a collision with Monica Wright. One never hopes for an injury to an opponent, but one never misses the opportunity to take advantage of a circumstance. Perhaps Taj McWilliams-Franklin wouldn’t show up for Game Three. (It was the rumor on press row on Friday night.) Or perhaps Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve, up 2-0 and playing in hostile territory with a banged-up 41 year old center would decided to give Mama Taj some rest in Game Three.
But the basketball gods are fickle. Atlanta got its free pass with Indiana; no further aid was coming.
Depression: Depression means two things. It means a state of unhappiness and hopelessness. A depression can also mean an area of the surface that is lower than that which surrounds it. In Game Three, Atlanta got both.
Atlanta won three of the four quarters of the game. But the third quarter was the one that Atlanta would look at with regret . The score of that quarter? Minnesota 19, Atlanta 8. Marynell Meadors said that the Dream had come out flat in the second half and they looked it.
Nothing went in for Atlanta. As for Minnesota, they seemed to be doing a better job. Words almost fail. It was the fourth straight Finals game for Atlanta where they led their opponent at halftime and lost. (In last year’s WNBA Finals vs. Seattle, the Dream tied the Storm in the first half in Game One and were down by two at halftime in Game Two.)
But the basketball gods had yet to make their final appearance. Down 64-56 in the fourth with 2:10 to go, Atlanta began to roll back. Lindsey Harding hit a couple of free throws. Armintie Price picked up a steal and the ensuing foul sent Angel McCoughtry to the free throw line where she picked up two more. Then, with 1:17 left, Iziane hit from a 3-pointer to close the gap to 64-63 and to force Lynx fans to set aside their championship dreams for a few moments.
In the press conference after the game, Seimone Augustus said that she had told her teammates to remain calm. Good advice. After a pair of free throws from Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the ball was back in Atlanta’s hands. But McCoughtry missed the first shot of the final minute of the game, and with Minnesota now controlling the ball this forced the Dream to foul more than it wanted to. The Lynx would go to the free throw line 10 times in the final minute, and there were no more miracles left in the Atlanta Dream’s 2011 season.
An odd note: the Dream had only been held to 67 points or less only one time during the entire season – by Minnesota, on June 19, 2011, in Atlanta.
"Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" – Groucho Marx
The word acceptance implies a decision – that one has the power to simply turn away and if so, reject the conclusion. But this is very difficult in sports. You can claim that the Dream are actually the better team, but someone in Minneapolis might say, "Funny, I’m looking at box scores that say 88-74, 101-95 and 73-67." Add the two regular season games and the Dream went 0-5 against Minnesota.
In life, there is usually no choice in acceptance. In most of our sorrows, one accepts things because reality forces us to accept them, because the alternative of rejecting them leads to the consequence of living in a delusional world. One swallows the bitter pill and gets on with life.
Like many Atlanta Dream fans, I have swallowed the bitter pill, but I can still taste it. Even as I congratulate the Minnesota Lynx for their championship season, I can take no joy in it. I cannot add to Minnesota’s pleasure because I have none of my own to give, nor can I share in it because it would be celebrating an Atlanta defeat, an act of disloyalty. The only thing I can offer Minnesota other than congratulations and an acceptance of the outcome is some perverse gratitude that the sweep by the Lynx numbed the memory of Game Two from my mind. The Lynx removed all doubt with Game Three.
I tell myself that it could be worse. I could have been a Buffalo Bills fan from 1991 through 1994 when the Bills went to four straight Super Bowls and lost them all. I could have been a St. Louis Blues fan between 1967 and 1970, where the Blues had the misfortune to be swept four games to none in three straight Stanley Cups, an 0-12 run in the championship games of their sport.
I’m sure that there are some better people out there who might offer solace, and say "Atlanta, your time shall come." But I know better. Champions do not take turns. Minnesota had to wait over a decade for their title. New York took part in four of the first six WNBA championships. They won none of them, and have been waiting nine years now for the opportunity to come back. Washington still waits, ever hopeful.
Atlanta has become the city where WNBA champions are crowned. Just not the Dream. Not yet, anyway.