Dream have ‘Unfinished Business’ heading into WNBA playoffs

Angel McCoughtry and the top-seeded Dream's bid for a third WNBA Finals berth in four years opens with a matchup against the Sky.

Stacy Bengs/AP

ATLANTA –Sitting at a bar top table in a downtown restaurant, Michael Cooper motioned to a television on the back wall, where highlights of Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis played.

"Have you seen her this girl yet," Cooper asked. "She’s incredible."

Cooper knows a thing or two about phenoms. He was on hand for the start of Magic Johnson’s career when the two were Los Angeles Lakers, and as Atlanta Dream coach he sees a number of similarities between the NBA legend and his rookie guard Shoni Schimmel.

"She has that flair and that charisma about her and she has the ability to make other players better," Cooper said.

Schimmel has made an undeniable impact on the franchise — and the WNBA — in helping Atlanta (19-15) claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference as they open the playoffs Friday against the Chicago Sky (15-19) in a best-of-three series.

Taken with the No. 8 pick in the draft out of Louisville, She has provided a spark off the bench in Cooper’s scheme, which like the Showtime Lakers teams on which he won five titles, is predicated on a fast, wide-open style of play.

The All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, Schimmel ended the regular season sixth in the league in three-pointers (53), 15th in assists (3.6) and seventh in assists per 40 minutes (6.8) and her 8.3 points per game were sixth among all rookies.

But few can match the drawing card of the Umatilla Indian Reservation product. She drew over 4,500 to a game in Phoenix and in Seattle they sold out of her jersey in 25 minutes before the doors even opened.

"Every game feels like a home game," said Dream forward and two-time All-Star Angel McCoughtry. "She’s bringing so much fearless intensity to the game. She can shoot threes and they’re throwing two (defenders) at her like they do at me, and that’s a big compliment. … She can score at will from anywhere."

With the arrival of Cooper and his system came a major shift for McCoughtry, the league’s scoring champ in each of the two previous years, one that the coach felt was best to address with her first hand.

He flew to Turkey, where McCoughtry plays for Fenerbahçe Istanbul, and talked to her about the importance of deferring to those around her.

In order for a team to be successful, your star has to take a step back and let other people shine. That’s where I tried to persuade (her)," Cooper said. "Teams aren’t going to let great players beat them and that’s something I sold her on, that sometimes you have to be a decoy, a passer to get yourself that big shot we want to get you."

After three Finals appearances in her career — including two in the last three years — series in which the Dream failed to win one game, McCoughtry was willing to adapt.

"That made me feel really good," McCoughtry said of Cooper’s trip to Turkey. "He believes that we can win a championship and I believe that under him we will. He just talked to me about just doing some a little bit different."

McCoughtry has attempted 105 less shots than a year ago and her average of 18.5 ppg is the lowest since the 12.8 she has in her rookie year of 2009. But the Dream still rank fourth in the league in scoring (80.5) and have the conference’s top seed for the first time.

"Her point production has gone down, but her faith in her teammates, her trust in her teammates and her belief in her teammates has gone through the roof," Cooper said.

They have four players scoring in double figures with McCoughtry, center Erika de Souza (13.8), guard Tiffany Hayes (12.9) and forward Sancho Lyttle (12.2) and are third in assists per game (19.3), nearly three more assists than a year ago.

"One of the priorities with Coop and I this offseason was to bring Angel help. … But making sure that she has help and support around her so she can do what she can do," said general manager Angela Taylor.

That included adding French guard Celine Dumerc (4.0 assists), three-time WNBA champ DeLisha Milton-Jones, guard Matee Ajavon and forward Amanda Thompson.

But can the new faces and a new coach help the franchise break through?

They dropped 10 of their last 14 games and lost three of five to Chicago, a matchup the Sky helped solidify by resting three starters — Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles and Epihanny Prince — in a loss to the Stars in regular-season finale.

"We just want to gain respect and we don’t want to be taken for granted," McCoughtry said. "We feel like Chicago blew the game on purpose to play us … so be it."

The Dream have adopted the slogan "Unfinished Business" for the playoffs, putting it on signs and T-shirts they’ll hand out at Friday’s game. But to Cooper, it’s about something different.

"I’m for business at hand. That’s what it’s about for me," Cooper said "’Unfinished Business’ to me means that they’ve won a couple of games in the championship and just came up short. This team hasn’t won any games in the championship series. For me it’s business at hand and taking care of each game that we play."