Following a sweep over the Indiana Fever Sunday afternoon in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Atlanta Dream qualified to the WNBA Finals for the third time in four years.
If not for that factoid (and a change in font for jerseys), the 2013 playoffs could resemble a record player caught on a loop. In 2011, Atlanta defeated Indiana in the conference finals to reach the championship round. Their opponent was the Minnesota Lynx, who they will face again starting next Sunday.
Atlanta could require a strategy similar to the 2010 movie “Inception,” where the plot hinged on planting an idea within the subconscious dream state of another person. They will likely have to answer the question of not winning a Finals game this week; Atlanta suffered Finals sweeps to Seattle in 2010 and Minnesota in 2011.
They likely face major underdog status. In Sunday’s win, the Dream hit only 38 percent of their shots, roughly their average for the post-season. Minnesota’s field goal accuracy is 46 percent through their four playoff games, just a tick under their regular season rate of 47.5 percent. Three-point shooting reveals a slightly deeper gap: Minnesota’s rate from that distance is 30 percent while Atlanta is shooting a measly 20 percent.
The Dream does have an edge over the Lynx in rebounding margin, but their first two opponents had no player near the caliber they will encounter in the Finals. Rebekkah Brunson will be a likely hassle for an Atlanta lineup thin at the post position; Brunson had 14 rebounds in Minnesota’s win over Phoenix.
Beyond numbers, Atlanta will also be challenged to find production beyond Angel McCoughtry. The perennial All-Star’s scoring average is 19.6 points per game, but none of her teammates are close behind. Two years ago, McCoughtry put up outstanding scoring numbers, but some wondered if more distribution would have been more effective.
The saga involving McCoughtry that threatened to implode the Dream’s chemistry last season has appeared to subside, but to beat the Lynx, they may need to channel last year’s title run by the Fever and the strategy that caught the Lynx in a dearth of preparation.
2009 – Eliminated in conference semifinals
Atlanta’s first playoff appearance was 2009, when they were bolstered with Angel McCoughtry, who was voted Rookie of the Year that season. With her acquisition, the Dream rebounded from a 4-30 inaugural campaign to 18-16, but they were swept by the Detroit Shock in the first round.
2010 – Lost in Finals
Angel McCoughtry quickly evolved to her current status of fierce scoring in 2010. The Dream’s overall record only improved by one game (19-15), but they swept a favored Washington team in the first round and did the same to New York to qualify for their first WNBA Finals trip. Unfortunately, they dealt with the machine that was the 2010 Seattle Storm, losing the Finals in a three-game sweep.
2011 – Lost in Finals
Atlanta returned to the Finals in 2011 after a 20-14 regular season record, which remains their best in franchise history. McCoughtry put up insane numbers in the Finals, including a single-game record 38 points in game two, but the production came at the expense of her teammates, allowing the diversified Minnesota Lynx to sweep them.
2012 – Eliminated in conference semifinals
Atlanta’s tumultuous 2012 season did not dismantle their playoff contention, finishing with a 19-15 record despite an ordeal that led to the firing of head coach Marynell Meadors and the absence of Angel McCoughtry for several games after the Olympics. Fred Williams took over head coaching responsibilities and the drama tapered off, but the upstart Indiana Fever dispatched Atlanta on their path to a 2012 championship.
2013 – Third overall Finals appearance
Atlanta finished 2013 with a 17-17 mark and will enter this year’s Finals with the worst record of any participant, but they overpowered an injury-depleted Indiana Fever team to earn another shot at Minnesota. Atlanta has navigated injuries of their own, including the loss of Sancho Lyttle in a game against Minnesota.