Tiffany Hayes remembers a feeling more than the actual moment. The feeling that her Dream team was turning and heading in the right direction.
“It was a couple games into our (eight-game winning) streak, I don’t even remember the exact game, me and Renee (Montgomery) looked at each other on the court, and said ‘We are on to something’. We knew it,” Hayes said.
And the Atlanta Dream know it now as well. The Dream have clinched a playoff spot for the eighth time in franchise history, playing the best basketball in the WNBA over the past month and a half. And it’s been a pace set by Hayes, the sometimes introverted, sometimes outspoken guard with an admitted history of inconsistency, who has found a new level to her game. Potentially, an MVP level.
“I’d take a team full of Tiffanys,” Dream coach Nicki Collen said. “She shows up and she competes every single game. She doesn’t look for the spotlight, but it keeps finding her.”
The Dream have won 11 of 12 to solidify the No. 2 position in the WNBA standings. Hayes has averaged 21.8 points a game over that stretch and a team-high 17.8 points for the season. Hayes has propelled herself into the league MVP conversation over this stretch. And she has earned herself a multi-year contract extension, the Dream announcing earlier this week that Hayes will continue her career in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.
The second-round draft pick in 2012 is shooting a career-best 47.0 from the floor. She has been named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week three times this season and is the only second-round pick to ever be named WNBA Player of the Month, which she has done twice. On July 17, she made one of the most exciting plays of the season, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from beyond half-court that gave the Dream a big win over the Connecticut Sun.
It’s as if Hayes has a point to prove.
On Aug. 5, against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, Hayes put up 28 points in 30 minutes in a game that might have had a little extra meaning for the former Connecticut standout.
Hayes was left off the WNBA All-Star team, something that surprised many considering she was an All-Star last season and is having a statistically superior season this year. The All-Star game was played in Minnesota. So maybe Hayes had some payback in mind?
“It did sting a little because it was one of my goals, but I just use it as motivation now,” Hayes said.
And when teammate Renee Montgomery wore Hayes’ jersey in the 3-point competition in Minneapolis as a tribute to her friend, Hayes was touched.
“We were in LA when she asked me if she could do it,” Hayes said. “When she got the OK to do it, I still wasn’t sure it would happen. But when I saw it, it made me tear up.”
Hayes has been known to voice her frustrations on social media about a variety of subjects, including fouls, fines and more. And there were days in her career when those frustrations would be evident on the floor.
Collen called Hayes “one of the most misunderstood players in the league.”
“You can always see her competitive streak, but I was also kind of annoyed by her from the other sideline,” Collen said. “She’s a little shy and a little introverted. Even in this offseason, as much as I stayed in contact with our players, I didn’t build the kind of relationship I did with somebody like Brittney Sykes. I didn’t immediately know what I had. But after two days of camp, I did.”
Hayes took a leading role last season in the absence of star Angel McCoughtry. McCoughtry’s return this season – along with Collen’s new staff and the addition of point guard Montgomery – was going to change some things. Hayes said she was ready to roll with it.
“I knew we would figure it out,” Hayes said. “I don’t ever have a problem doing what is best for the team. And I’m always willing to just take a step back and watch people’s vibes and see how they operate. Figure out where I’m needed and what I need to do. With Angel coming back, I was going to be cool, no matter how it was.
“Whether she was going to be the main scorer, or the main leader, I was good with that. But we are a team, and everybody is doing their part right now.”
Hayes said her biggest goal in the offseason was to return as a more consistent performer on both ends of the floor, something she said she has been working on for a while.
“I am actually pretty proud of myself,” Hayes said. “It’s definitely a mental thing for me. I’ve always been really up and down with myself and my confidence and I’ve gotten a lot better with that. Everything is not perfect. But it used to be that if I had a bad game, I’d have another and then another.”
Collen has seen the difference over the course of their first season together.
“She has really channeled her passion this year. In a way, she’s controlled it,” Collen said. “I just don’t want to take her out of the game. My coaches will be calling for a sub and I say ‘I know.’ We are the only team in the league that doesn’t have a single player averaging more than 30 minutes and I still don’t want her off the floor.”
Collen said that whether it was an All-Star snub or being drafted in the second round, Hayes has always been a chip-on-the-shoulder player.
“I think it makes her play with a little more passion,” Collen said. “As long as she’s dialed in, and staying within our system, you have to let players be who they are. People are saying that maybe she played so great at Minnesota because she didn’t get to play there in the All-Star game. I don’t know. I didn’t ask her. I’m just happy she showed up and played like that.
“If Tiff makes the All-WNBA Team, that will be more to her. If she wins playoff games, that will mean more to her. I’m past the point of worrying about whether she’s carrying something with her. It gives her an edge. I don’t mind that. I like an edge.”
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.