ATLANTA — The WNBA’s three-game series playoff format can be cruel at times, the spoils of regular-season preeminence snatched away in 40 minutes. When the universally cherished home-court advantage disappears, as it did for the Atlanta Dream on Friday night, the series favorite’s back immediately hits the wall.
The Chicago Sky walked into Philips Arena to find the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference ready and waiting. Before the series began, Atlanta’s players, namely star Angel McCoughtry, openly acknowledged that the feeling was the Sky rested players to set up the matchup, purposefully challenging the top seed. Chicago won the season series and Atlanta limped into the playoffs losing 10 of its final 14 games, so the lack of fear makes sense on paper.
McCoughtry & Co. didn’t see things that way, and they stormed out of the gate in their playoff series opener. But somehow, after running the lead up to 12 and leading after each of the first three quarters, the Dream still walked away with an 80-77 loss.
One off night shooting the basketball. One team finding ways to exploit certain weaknesses or play to its strengths. One lapse into old habits. This is the margin of error in the three-game series, and as the pivotal Game 2 heads to the Windy City, the Dream have questions to answer.
Atlanta, the unofficial fast break champs of the WNBA, could not get out into the open court against an efficient Chicago gameplan. It scored just two points in transition. They didn’t — or couldn’t — press the issue.
"Atlanta wants to play a little bit faster, and we kept it in fourth gear and we knew when to get to fifth gear," Sky coach Pokey Chapman said. "I like the gameplan we had today. They’re a transition team. We call the first five seconds ‘quick strike.’ They’re the best in the league, first five seconds. And part of that is when we execute and shoot 47 percent, it slows them down and buys two extra seconds to get back on defense. It’s all connected. It’s just a matter of us doing those things and stopping their transition."
What that did was force the Dream into their halfcourt sets and, eventually, rely more and more on McCoughtry to get the job done. Or perhaps it was the other way around: McCoughtry attempting to will her team to a playoff win as time ticked away. (Either way, it almost worked.) That’s not how things have operated in the first season under coach Michael Cooper, though.
The mantra of team basketball was preached from the very beginning — with it’s loudest calls aimed at McCoughtry, one of the league’s most gifted scorers. She responded, too. Her shots went down and she posted her lowest scoring average (18.5 points) since her rookie year … and Atlanta still captured the East’s top seed. She accounted for approximately 20 percent of the team’s shots this season, down five percentage points from the previous year.
That faded, to an extent, on Friday night.
Either the Dream looked to McCoughtry to take over when the offense couldn’t get into it’s regular uptempo routine or McCoughtry self-diagnosed the situation. She scored a game-high 24 points on 22 shots — in other words, 30 percent of the team’s field goal attempts — including nine pivotal fourth-quarter points. With a difficult 3-pointer, she tied the game at 75-75 with just over two minutes to play and then gave Cooper’s team the lead on a designed play with 1:40 remaining. The Dream failed to score on their final five possessions.
"Angel’s a competitor. She’s going to come out and compete every single game, and that’s the one thing I know about her that she’s gonna do — as well as our team," Cooper said of his star player, who was unavailable for interviews after the loss. "She’s the leader of this ballclub. She tried to will this win for us, but again that goes to show you that basketball’s not a one- or two- or three-player sport. It takes five players for you to be successful to win a game and a championship. And we were real close."
As they head out on the road, the Dream need to find their strengths. Two fast break points will not cut it, especially not if they harbor any ideas of making their fourth WNBA Finals appearance in five years.
If the Sky do take away the running game yet again, there will need to be a backup plan.
"I didn’t really recognize (Chicago taking away the transition game)," rookie point guard Shoni Schimmel said, "but to get the half-court offense running for us and to the T and just to be able to have that in our back pocket is something that we’re gonna need to do for the next game."
Atlanta posted a 6-11 record this season on the road. It has now lost 11 of its past 15 games, including four of the past six meetings with Chicago.
The No. 1 seed is on the ropes. Things can change in a hurry during a three-game series.
All of that being said, Chapman made it clear that her team would not take anything for granted in Sunday’s showdown. Atlanta could steal home-court advantage back with just 40 more minutes of play.
"They’re a team that’s been there, done that. They’re not gonna panic," Chapman said. "This is a team that always finds themselves in championship series. They’re gonna be hungry, they’re pride’s gonna be tested. They have a good coach, they’re gonna gameplan and try to take away some of the quality players that we have. It’s just a matter of focusing on what we’re good at doing and play the chess match and see who comes out winners."
Cooper, always the upbeat type with a mind that rarely strays too far away from his playing days in Los Angeles, put on the public face of welcoming the road challenge. So it was that his former coach, Pat Riley, set the team’s new tone with Cooper repeating one of his old standbys: