2014 Playoff Preview

The 2014 Atlanta Dream season has been one that has seen the same word used over and over again, all season long: championship. From the time the 2013 season ended with another disappointing loss in the WNBA Finals, a championship was the lone goal of everyone involved.

Championships were the reason Michael Cooper was brought in as the team’s new head coach. He won five of them in Los Angeles with the Lakers as a player and two more with the Sparks as a coach. And from the moment he arrived, he preached to the team about what it takes to be a champion. He talked about the little things champions do that set them apart from the rest of the pack.

And the results were immediately evident. The Dream rode that championship mentality to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs for the first time in team history.

The Dream entered the season with lofty expectations, with four returning starters from last year’s squad, including three standouts – Erika de Souza, Sancho Lyttle and Angel McCoughtry – who had been instrumental in the Dream reaching the WNBA Finals three of the past four seasons.

After an uneven start that saw the Dream split its first six games of the season, the team quickly found its stride when the calendar turned to June. A nationally-televised victory over Cooper’s old Sparks team kick-started a six-game winning streak that also included a victory over Minnesota in a WNBA Finals rematch.

But the Dream didn’t stop there. Wins in five of the next seven games improved the team’s record to 15-5 overall as the team approached the All-Star Break.

But the team’s momentum came to a screeching halt when it was learned that Cooper had been diagnosed with early stage tongue cancer, and was forced to take a medical leave of absence. Around the same time that Cooper was sidelined, the team went into a tailspin, dropping nine of 11 games.

Thankfully, Cooper’s surgery was successful and he was able to rejoin the team. Shortly thereafter, Atlanta recovered its mojo, winning its last two home games in dominating fashion. Everything seemed to finally fall back into place during a startling 37-point second quarter during a route of Western Conference-leading Phoenix that snapped the losing skid.

A number of factors contributed to the Dream’s success during the season. First, the Dream was quite likely the league’s best rebounding team, leading the league in total rebounds (37.7), offensive rebounds (11.8), rebound differential (+3.4) and total rebounding percentage (.525). The Dream’s domination of the boards led to a 492-340 advantage in second-chance points this season.

The Dream’s presence inside also led to a massive edge in points in the paint during the season, as the Dream outscored its opponents by a whopping 232 points for the season (1336-1104), holding an edge in that category 24 times in 34 games.

The Dream also loved to run, with Cooper’s “Showtime” philosophy evident in the Dream’s 453-256 edge in fast-break points during the season. Atlanta led the league in fast-break points, and held an edge over its opponents 27 times in 34 games.

Atlanta led the league in steals (9.6 per game), which helped lead to the many fast-break opportunities. The Dream also shared the ball well, ranking third in assists per game (19.4).

Although it was certainly a team effort all season long, there were definitely individual accomplishments along the way.

McCoughtry, de Souza and Lyttle – who all earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors at least once during the season – were joined by Tiffany Hayes to form one of the best starting foursomes in the league, and in fact, the only foursome to all score more than 400 points and all average more than 12 points per game.

McCoughtry finished fourth in the league in scoring (18.5), stopping her string of two straight scoring titles, but did lead the league in steals for a second time (2.39), ranked 16th in assists (3.6) and 20th in rebounds (5.2).

Meanwhile, de Souza was fourth in the league in blocks (1.5), sixth in rebounds (8.7) and field goal percentage (.545) and 15th in scoring (13.8). Her nine double-doubles was tied for seventh best in the league, with Lyttle, who also ranked second in steals (2.21) and fifth in rebounds (9.0).

Hayes was 22nd in the league in scoring (12.9) and ranked fourth among guards in field goal percentage (.463). In addition, Céline Dumerc led the WNBA in assists per 40 minutes in her first season in the league after a stellar career in Europe.

And then there was Shoni Schimmel, the rookie who took the sporting world by storm. Schimmel, who was the fourth Dream player to be named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, set a WNBA record for most assists in the first four games of a career (37) and later became just the fifth player to record a 20-point quarter in a WNBA game. And of course, who could forget that she earned All-Star Game MVP honors after setting an All-Star Game record with 29 points.

McCoughtry and de Souza joined Schimmel as starters at that All-Star Game, and with Cooper and the rest of the Dream staff leading the East team to victory, Dream fans can only hope that was just a prelude to what is to come during the 2014 WNBA Playoffs.

With a veteran roster with loads of playoff and international experience, and a title-winning coach who is driven to succeed, the hope is that the season will end as it began – with the Dream talking about a championship.