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Insider Preview: Storm at Atlanta

HEAD-TO-HEAD
13-14 RECORD 16-14
W-2 STREAK W-1
3-2 LAST 5 4-1
70.8 PF 78.9
98.5 Off. Eff. 98.4
72.2 PA 76.1
98.0 Def. Eff. 95.9
30.7 RPG 35.2
.463 Reb % .504
73.2 Pace 78.1
14.0 Exp. Wins 17.7

Storm at Atlanta
Tuesday, Sept. 11, 4:00 p.m.
Philips Arena
TV: NBA TV
Radio: 1090 AM
LiveAccess: Available with subscription

Kevin Pelton, StormBasketball.com


The Atlanta Dream's season has been dominated by off-court drama involving star forward Angel McCoughtry. After returning from the Olympics, where she helped the USA win gold, McCoughtry played two games before missing two more for what were termed "personal reasons." McCoughtry sat in the stands, apart from her team.

Conflict between McCoughtry and Atlanta Head Coach Marynell Meadors, who also was a part of the U.S. Olympic Team as an assistant to Geno Auriemma, came to a resolution shortly thereafter. On Aug. 27, Meadors was fired and replaced by assistant Fred Williams. Given that Meadors had led the Dream to the WNBA Finals each of the last two seasons, the move could only be explained as relating to Meadors' relationship with McCoughtry.

Williams' first act was to suspend McCoughtry, indicating that he needed to meet with the star before reinstating her to the team. That took two games. Since then, McCoughtry has spent the last four games in a reserve role.

The attention off the court has obscured the fact that Atlanta seems to again be peaking at the right time. The Dream has won four of its last five games, losing only in double-overtime at Minnesota last Friday in a rematch of the 2011 WNBA Finals. Included in that stretch are wins over the two teams ahead of Atlanta in the Eastern Conference standings, Connecticut and Indiana, both at Philips Arena.

No matter the team's overall record, the Dream is the opponent nobody will want to face in the East Playoffs. Atlanta is likely to finish third and has little chance of claiming home-court advantage in the opening round, but that's no problem for the Dream. Atlanta has won four series on the road over the last two postseasons to claim back-to-back Eastern Conference championships.

If the Dream repeats that feat, it will start at the defensive end. Atlanta is allowing a league-low 95.5 points per 100 possessions. The Dream boasts one of the league's most athletic, physical frontcourts, which was able to patch things together on defense while starting center Erika de Souza was busy preparing to represent Brazil in the Olympics. Atlanta has only gotten deeper since the break with the return of de Souza.

While defense allowed the Dream to survive without McCoughtry, her presence in the lineup takes Atlanta to another level because of her scoring punch. With McCoughtry on the court, the Dream scores 7.3 more points per 40 minutes, according to Paul Swanson of the Minnesota Lynx. Regardless of what has happened on the court, McCoughtry's play has never wavered. She leads the WNBA with 21.6 points per game and has improved her shooting percentage to 43.7 percent. McCoughtry is also a major factor on defense, where she leads the league with a career-high 2.6 steals per game.

Since the Storm swept the Dream in the 2010 WNBA Finals, Atlanta has been the league's most difficult opponent for the Storm. The Dream won a pair of blowouts last season and came into KeyArena just before the Olympic Break without McCoughtry to beat a short-handed Storm team. Atlanta has used its strength to dominate the glass against the Storm, while its quickness on the perimeter has forced turnovers and created opportunities in transition.

Lauren Jackson has yet to play against the Dream since the Finals, and her presence could change the matchup by allowing the Storm to match Atlanta's physical play in the paint. After a slow start to the process of integrating Jackson into the lineup, the Storm made major strides in back-to-back blowouts of Tulsa. The team took care of the basketball, moved it to open shooters and knocked down attempts both inside and out. The Storm will look to maintain that level and style of play the remainder of the season.

KEY MATCHUP
It's a battle of Li(y)ttles at power forward tonight. Atlanta's Sancho Lyttle took on a larger role as a scorer during McCoughtry's absence and is averaging a career-high 14.1 points per game to go along with her usual important contributions defensively and on the glass. Lyttle had 21 points earlier this season against the Storm and can cause counterpart Camille Little trouble with her length and leaping ability. At the same time, Little has the advantage in terms of strength and savvy around the basket. Jackson's return has opened things up for Little inside, and she scored a career-high 28 points on Saturday. Little has been big since the Olympic Break, scoring double-figures six times in eight games.
LAST MEETING

Atlanta handed the Storm a third consecutive head-to-head defeat on July 11 at KeyArena on Kids Day. The Dream's length and quickness frustrated the Storm offense, which finished the game shooting just 39.6 percent from the field. The starters combined to shoot 11-of-36 (30.6 percent). The Dream became the first opponent to come into Seattle and win consecutive trips since the Phoenix Mercury during the 2009 season.

The brightest spot for the Storm was the play of rookie Shekinna Stricklen, who recorded career highs with 16 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes. Stricklen shot 6-of-9 from the field. Tanisha Wright (12) was the lone other Storm player in double figures. Sue Bird handed out eight assists and Alysha Clark (7) also recorded what was at the time a career high.

INJURIES

Storm - None.

Atlanta - Center Yelena Leuchanka (sprained right wrist) is day-to-day.

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