Atlanta, GA — “Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.”~ Bill Russell
On the cusp of the All-Star break, the Atlanta Dream are already in a make it or break it mode. Atlanta entered Friday’s game 5-6 and needed a win to keep a foothold in the playoff race. Los Angeles came in on a six-game win streak and was coming in hot.
Energy was high and the Dream started off the game in a good rhythm. Throughout the first quarter, the Dream played competitively with high energy and fans could see they wanted the win.
With one-minute left in the first Atlanta was only down three. After a hard fought opening frame, Sancho Lyttle knocked down a huge three to end the quarter at a tie, 23-23.
The energy was there; the resilience was showing for Atlanta.
“We wanted to come out and set the tone of the game early, “Atlanta’s head coach Michael Cooper stated. “I thought we did that by scoring first and stayed in it. I thought we lost it when they got up 11-7 on us. I think that's when we kinda got down on ourselves and stopped doing the things that were able to give us the lead.”
As the second period opened, Los Angeles played with poise and Atlanta began to make costly mistakes. The difference in experience showed as the Sparks began to pull away. The Dream did not go quietly though, the effort was there, but the mistakes continued. Turnovers and missed opportunities piled up for the home team.
The differences between the reigning champion and the feisty young squad was showing – especially the greatest difference between the two squads: mentality. The Sparks are champions and play like it. Hustle plays, overcoming mistakes almost immediately (Forcing turnovers after committing turnovers) all the keys to winning were present. With Los Angeles pulling away, Atlanta’s energy started to dwindle.
“A good term I like to use is grit,” said the Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “It's a combination of mental toughness, physical toughness, focus, resiliency, persistence, it's a combination of all those things. When you have a team that can have that trait of Grit in a collective manner than you can really do well.”
Shots continued to fall as the Sparks increased the lead to 37-25 with four minutes left in the half. The Dream’s offense completely broke down as shots would not fall in and desperation sunk in.
Mindset. Mentality. Focus -- the Sparks have it.
Shifting focus from the team, there is a difference in coaching staffs, too. Brian Agler is active, involved on the sidelines. He continues to point out weakness and provide reminders. Michael Cooper remained seated during the game. Silent.
The positive thing: Atlanta didn’t give up yet. The energy was still there.
As the half ended, Brittney Sykes provided a fast break layup to keep the Dream alive. The half concluded with the Sparks up 44-36.
The second half began and Atlanta did not lack in energy but the execution was not there. Los Angeles was focused and their shots continued to fall for them. The score was 58-46 with 5:30 left in the third with the Sparks still in the lead. Still being down, Atlanta was not backing down, however, the mistakes and sloppy play remained.
Clearly the Atlanta Dream have heart. They do not give up and did not backdown. The Sparks have heart and play smarter, they execute the little things that can frustrate an opponent. They finish shots, they get rebounds, they make mistakes and don’t react, but take action.
It was difficult for the Dream to capitalize when the Sparks responded so quickly. The third ended with Atlanta down 71-54.
The difference was in the details. The Sparks consistently got loose balls, rebounds, and they capitalized on opportunities. Although, with seven minutes into the fourth quarter the Dream was still fighting to erase its deficit with the score at 73-61. Atlanta was displaying heart and keeping Los Angeles from running away with the score.
With three minutes left in the fourth, Alana Beard had a devastating block. The Sparks followed up with a three to extend the lead, 82-69. The Dream stayed its course and remained relentless by not quitting. They brought the score within 10, pressing in the waning moments of the game.
A common theme in the game, the Sparks recovered an offensive rebound and a two-point score with a foul to secure the victory.
“This game was an important game. I’ve played against this team and have yet to win in Atlanta,” shared Alana Beard. “I think Candace’s daughter was 7 months old the last time we beat Atlanta. Clearly its been a long time. We were heavily focused on winning this game.”
The Los Angeles Sparks showed why they are a championship team tonight as they extended their win streak to seven games. Mental fortitude and experience was on display throughout the night. The Atlanta Dream showed a lot of heart, they didn’t quit at any point of the game no matter the odds. This is a young, talented team that can progress with lessons learned like tonight's match.
“Mental toughness is all about preparation. When we went to the basket and didn’t get calls that’s when we took a step back,” said Coach Cooper.
"We always have a mindset of coming in and doing what we have to do to have a good start during the game,” stated Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes. “We tend to get down a lot. Our effort was there we just came up short. We are good at forgetting about things and moving forward."