Atlanta Practice Report: Erika Arrives
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Erika de Souza answered exactly one question in English on Tuesday.
For all but one of the questions from reporters, the Atlanta Dream’s Brazilian-born center went through her translator. But one, she felt capable of handling on her own.
How do you feel? Are you tired? Are you ready to go?
De Souza waved off her translator.“I’m ready to go,” she said.
So, after almost two weeks, the saga of Erika de Souza has come to an end here in Minneapolis. It started after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when she had to leave the Dream to compete with Team Brazil in Olympic qualifiers, and just wrapped up on Tuesday, when she finally arrived back with her team – a day before Game 2 of the WNBA Finals.
Here’s an abridged, What-You-Might-Have-Missed version of the trip:
- de Souza left the country on Sept. 24 and finally rejoined the Dream on Tuesday, a span of 12 days.
- Her flight back to the U.S. was delayed in Colombia, and the whole Bogota-Miami-Minnesota trip ended up taking her two full days.
- The Dream went with a three-guard set that worked against the Fever but left them woefully undersized against the Lynx, as they lost the rebounding battle by 12 and were outscored in the paint by 22 points.
Got that? It all added up to a scene on Tuesday that made de Souza look less like a center, and more like a conquering hero.
“Thank goodness,” said Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors.
Meadors was referring to her ability to rotate in a full lineup for the first time since Sept. 22, but the sentiment seemed to speak for all of the Dream on Tuesday.
“Oh my God, of course [she’ll make a huge difference],” said Dream guard Angel McCoughtry, who had 33 points in Game 1. “They killed us on the boards.”
“It’s more than just on the floor, but of course she helps the floor,” said Dream point guard Lindsey Harding. “Erika does a great job inside and rebounding, but it helps chemistry, too. We have everyone back. We have 11 people here …We have everybody, and this team is so close – we do feel a family atmosphere here.”
Immediately, de Souza changes the landscape of the series.
Not only were the Dream unable to work the ball inside with any efficiency in Game 1 – leading to a Finals-record 11 blocks from the Lynx – but they also just didn’t have many people to work with. Because Angel McCoughtry was playing out of position in de Souza’s absence, Meadors had only one guard – Coco Miller – to rotate in. And with the intensity that comes with Finals games, a depleted Dream lineup gave the Lynx a significant advantage in the fourth quarter.
Which just so happened to be when they held the Dream scoreless for five solid minutes.
“We did lose the battle of the boards, and we let people have open looks and they knocked it down,” she said. “They also got hot at the right time, too. They picked the right time to get warm.”
De Souza, who said that internet trouble kept her from being able to track the whole game, still got the message
“I know that in the last game we relaxed in the first five minutes of the last quarter,” shes said. “And that won’t happen again.”
The 6-foot-5 Brazilian pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game during the regular season. But beyond just her numbers, she’s a menacing body in the lane – something the Dream lacked in Game 1.
“We have to box out,” said Lynx center Jess Adair. “She gives them an advantage on the boards. She’s definitely a great rebounder, so we have to put a body on her. We got caught up jumping and tapping the ball in first game, now we have to put a body on her and make a conscious effort to keep her off the glass.”
On the offensive side, de Souza proves a tough matchup, especially when paired with Sancho Lyttle, who’ll slide back to her natural No. 4 spot. At their best, the two provide one of the most potent one-two punches in the league, with de Souza pounding inside and Lyttle roaming around, spotting-up.
And although they won their two games against the Dream in June, the Lynx had trouble with stopping de Souza on the inside. It’s been a while since those games, but Reeve doesn’t intend on making the same mistake this time around.
“We had a game plan in those games, and it didn’t work so well,” said Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve. “We revamped how we’re gonna guard her. She’ll still be a tough matchup. De Souza’s awfully good when she gets touches down there, so our ability to limit the touches and also be able to contest her shot and keep her off the glass, that’s the biggest thing. We have to force her into a tough shot and make sure it’s one and done.”
But regardless of how many points de Souza puts up, her mere presence has changed the tenor of this series, as the Dream look to even it up on Wednesday night. No longer does Atlanta have to stay the one-dimensional, guard-driven team it had been for the past three games.
“We can start small or we can start large,” Meadors said. “We’ve got options now that helps us as a coaching staff, because we’ve got people two deep into the guard situation and you’ve got three deep into the post situation. Now we’ve got people who can come in, back in their normal routine they’ve been in all year long.”
Said de Souza: “I’m gonna give it my best, and I think that my best is rebounding and defending. I think I can help the team right now to get the title for Atlanta, and the people that deserve it.”
The arrival of de Souza could send Izi Castro Marques back to the bench.
A bright spot for the Dream over the final two games of the Conference Finals – and still shiny, if a bit dimmer, in Game 1 of the Finals – Castro Marques had embraced her renewed starting role as part of Atlanta’s three-guard set. She scored 53 points over the Dream’s final two games against Indiana, then had 10 more on Sunday.
On Tuesday, neither she nor Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors would commit to saying that Castro Marques would be coming off the bench, but Izi said she wouldn’t be surprised.
She said earlier in the series that she was far more comfortable as a starter than a bench player, because it allowed her to get into the rhythm of the game a lot quicker, but that she’ll be ready for whatever’s asked of her.
“When you come off the bench, you have to see what [exactly] you come from the bench to do,” Castro Marques said. “It depends on what the game tells you to do.”
Despite the way the Dream ended Game 1 – with a five-minute scoreless stretch to open the fourth – Atlanta found a number of positives from Sunday’s performance.
They weren’t hard to find, the team said: for the other 35 minutes of the game, the Dream played the Lynx just about even.
“No matter what people say or do or write, it was five minutes when we lost it,” said point guard Lindsey Harding. “And once you get down by that much that late in the game, it’s really hard to recover.”
It was a tough five minutes, to be sure, full of breakdowns on both sides of the court. But the Dream all said that they know what went wrong.
“We started taking very quick shots,” Harding said. “And they started getting very easy baskets. Then they go up by so much, and we just couldn’t stop it.”
Harding did try to control the pace, visibly telling her team to slow down on a number of occasions. But she and Meadors both made one thing clear on Tuesday: when the ball leaves Harding’s hand, she doesn’t have a whole lot of control over what happens next.
“We have two players, one on each wing, that love to go 1-on-1,” Meadors said, referring to McCoughtry and Castro Marques. “That’s the two that really have to be smart about what they do. We had a discussion with the entire team, not just those two, about controlling the tempo, and how we have to control the pace of the game.”
De Souza should help in setting up the half-court offense, and McCoughtry and Castro Marques both said on Tuesday that they recognize the need to stay in the offensive flow.
“As bad as we played, we were still right there,” McCoughtry said. “We feel good about everything.”
ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel [a must-read, for anyone who hasn’t checked her coverage out] asked McCoughtry on Tuesday if she played chess.
Voepel said that Lynx forward Taj McWilliams-Smith said that she plays basketball like she plays chess, always thinking three moves ahead.
McCoughtry gave, of course, a great answer:
“No, I’m thinking about the right now,” she said. “We gotta get a stop now, a score now, I can’t think about the plays ahead, if the right-now hasn’t happened yet. I’m a checkers girl, then. Call me a checkers girl. I’m thinking about the move I’m gonna make now to jump you. How about that?
“You tell Taj to just give me a little challenge in checkers.”