If you asked someone about the Dream’s 2014 regular season, they’d tell you Atlanta started strong and inexplicably faded at the end. If you asked someone about Atlanta’s performance in Game Three of the Eastern Conference semifinals, they might tell you the exact same thing.
Chicago Sky forward Elena Delle Donne scored 17 of her 34 points in the fourth quarter alone in the fourth-seeded Sky’s amazing comeback victory over the top-seeded Atlanta Dream at Philips Arena on Tuesday night. Atlanta squandered a 17-point lead with 8:12 to go to in a loss to the Sky that will go down as one of the greatest WNBA playoff games ever played.
Dream coach Michael Cooper was left to try to explain the loss: "I don’t think it was intensity, but I think we got away from what we were doing well. I thought the execution of our offense kind of went out the window a little bit. We started to take some quick shots and some bad shots. And then our defense kind of got away from us. Again, we still have to give a lot of credit to Chicago because they did what they had to do to stay in this game."
Elena Delle Donne never gave up. Not from the start, and not at the finish."I just know that when we were in huddles and I was talking to the team, everyone had that look in their eye like we were not done yet – we were not ready to go home. So I was very confident a whole bunch. I knew we were playing pretty good defense, just not doing the little things like finishing with a rebound, finishing with a contested shot. In the fourth quarter, coach put the ball in my hands, the team trusted me and it just went from there."
Video: Elena Delle Donne's game-winner in Atlanta
Elena Delle Donne scored a basket with 16 seconds left to get the Sky within one point. But with 8 seconds left, she scored the game winning basket to give Chicago an 81-80 lead which was indeed the final score of the game.
At the start, neither team worked hard to present an inside game and points in the paint were infrequent, each team working on their mid-range jumpers. The Dream jumped out to an early 17-11 lead at the first time out, thanks to overcoming a weakness – poor free throw shooting – and starting out 6-for-6 at the free throw line. Sky guard Tamera Young had a good shooting first quarter but Chicago’s defense was challenged and Atlanta extended its lead, shooting at a 56 percent clip.
With the Dream finishing the quarter shooting 11-for-13 from the free throw line and with Young giving up shots to Dream forward Sancho Lyttle, Atlanta was in control at the end of the first quarter with a 30-17 lead. Lyttle had 10 points and five rebounds and the Dream looked very comfortable.
Atlanta’s offensive transition game was working, and the burst of offensive energy from Delle Donne was countered by Lyttle’s shooting. The Dream were ahead 42-24 before the Sky called a time out with 6:22 left in the second quarter. Chicago looked tired early and Tamera Young exchanged words with Dream forward Angel McCoughtry that resulted in a technical for McCoughtry and a foul for Young. The Dream lost a bit of its sharpness late in the second quarter but with Chicago held to just eight rebounds in the first half there was little to worry about. The Dream kept its double digit lead for the entire quarter, going into halftime with a 54-41 lead.
Three members of the Dream were in double digits, led by Sancho Lyttle with 14 points and six rebounds. Delle Donne had 15 points and Tamera Young had 10, but Sky guards Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot were a combined 1-for-6. Atlanta had 12 fast break points and Chicago was left without a fast break point going into the third.
The Dream kept up the fast break with back to back breaks by McCoughtry and Hayes to take a 60-41 lead with 7:39 to go in the third and forcing Chicago to call a time out. Chicago needed some things to happen, and with the Dream the first team over the foul limit there was still hope. But Tamera Young and Epiphanny Prince picked up their fourth fouls, Young missed four free throws, and Prince and Vandersloot remained absent without leave. Atlanta led 67-51 after three quarters as all of the Dream starters hit double digits.
After three quarters, Chicago finally overcame their aversion to driving into the lane.Their new effort to push to the basket helped them to close to 72-62 with 6:56 left and this time the Dream would use a timeout to recover. Chicago continued working the Dream into the ropes, with Delle Donne pushing to the basket and with 4:27 left in the quarter the Sky had cut Atlanta’s lead down to 74-69. The Dream had four fouls at the timeout and Chicago was picking up its rebounding effort. Was this the shift in momentum the Sky had been waiting for all game?
It was. Chicago rolled off 12 unanswered points led by Elena Delle Donne, showing why she was one of the best players in the WNBA. Suddenly, the game was tied at 74-74 and Atlanta was a boxer that had been worked into the corner with a fusillade of punches.
Atlanta had led a certain lead at the end of the first half in Game One slip away as well. "But I feel, for me, after we saw they were coming back, our mentality was that we needed to score, we needed to get the ball in the basket," Lyttle said. "But we stopped executing; we stopped doing the things that made us go up by 20 points."
The Dream scored the next four points and with Dream guard Shoni Schimmel’s running jumper the Dream led 80-77 with 29.5 seconds left.
Delle Donne’s driving jumper closed the Sky to within 80-79 with 23.7 left, forcing Chicago to foul Dream point guard Jasmine Thomas and send her to the line for two shots. But Thomas missed both free throws and the Sky got the rebound.
On the next sky play, it was Delle Donne versus McCoughtry. Delle Donne drove by McCoughtry to score her 34th point of the game and put the Sky up for the first time since the first quarter, 81-80 with 8.2 seconds left. McCoughtry would have her chance to be a hero, but her shot would not go down and the Sky’s improbable comeback entered the history books.
Cooper gave credit where credit was due. "It’s like a Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight, you have ‘em on the ropes a few quarters of the game and sometimes your great players will wheel you again. Just like in Game 2 where Angel came and brought it for us to help us get here, Delle Donne came and brought it for them. So, congratulations to them."
Elena Delle Donne finished the game with 34 points, and Tamera Young scored 16 points with five assists. Center Sylvia Fowles had 13 points and 15 points for the Sky. Prince and Vandersloot were 3-for-14 combined, but Delle Donne’s amazing quarter made up for their absence.
All Dream starters scored in double figures. Dream center Erika de Souza led the team with 18 points, McCoughtry scored 17 points on 5-for-18 shooting, and Sancho Lyttle had 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Chicago had faced adversity all year, with many of their starter suffering injuries of one sort of another. They made it to the fourth seed with a late season surge, and yet preserved. "I am thrilled for this team," Delle Donne said. "Last year, we went down big both games and we crumbled. This year, we went down just as big, but we fought back. I think that is because of all the adversity we had to face this season, and we have really grown and matured as a group."
Lyttle said it best at the end. "Then all of a sudden, it was one- point lead and we were looking up like ‘how did this happen?’ But if you go back to the tape, we made it happen."
- Chicago’s final run in the fourth quarter? 19-to-2.
- The Dream defense has led the WNBA in forcing turnovers, but were only able to force Chicago into nine turnovers.
- Over the last three seasons – 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 – every WNBA champion had to beat Atlanta to get there. Can the Sky keep up the streak in 2014?
Michael Cooper on defending Elena Delle Donne: "Well she didn’t play the game that she played in Game Two. We were able to nullify that. In Game Two she kept jumping but in this game here she was taking the ball to the basket, and I don’t think we were able to adjust. Angel played her perfectly all this game, but it just so happens that she got away from us and hit those last two baskets. But again, one player is not necessarily going to win the whole game for you, because she could’ve gotten 34 points and we won the game. But it was those key four points down the stretch that pulled them close and gave them the lead."
Cooper on whether or not the run of playoff success is at an end: "No. We’ll come back bigger and stronger and better than this year, and our goal still is to win a championship and we will win it. I think this year has been a big adjustment for this team with a new coaching staff coming in. They were getting to understand me and my philosophy, and I’m getting to understand them. I know that I went out on a branch and said that I guaranteed a championship, but that’s just how much I believe in this team. And I will make that guarantee. But we’ll be able to move a lot further because we understand what it takes to get over that first hurdle. Your hurdle starts during the regular season, and for us to start well and then go like 5-14, that’s not championship basketball. That’s limping into the playoffs, and I thought we limped in."
Chicago Sky head coach Pokey Chatman’s opening statement: "It was just a resilient effort by my team. Obviously, Atlanta owned us for much of the game. They had more offensive rebounds than we had total rebounds at the half. They were having our way us in terms of points in the paint. Everything was not in our favor, but we stayed the course, and when it got late it became time for players to make plays. My big time player [Delle Donne] stepped up. But none of that matters if they don’t stay the course, trust the process and keep digging, digging and digging. I was extremely happy we did that."
Chatman on Chicago’s game plan: "We just kept reminding them about the defensive schemes. That meant paying a lot of attention to Angel and not letting her beat us, plus not allowing the easy entry-passes with the interior defense. We had a couple of timeouts when we really didn’t talk basketball. We just had a coming to Jesus and trying to figure things out."
Chatman on Tamera Young’s play: "She had the unenvious task of guarding and trying to disrupt Angel. Sometimes it can get frustrating, but Tamera did a great job – even in that big spurt when the technical was called on Angel. She reacted by getting back and playing defense and staying the course. I will say this – she has done that all year for us, even when everyone else was down. So it is nice on this stage tonight that her growth and maturity showed in a place where everyone can appreciate it."
For more on last night's game and the entire series, check out our Dream vs. Sky storystream.