June 24, 2021 

After a 1-6 stretch, can the Atlanta Dream defense keep up?

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Running through the six with their woes, plus a case for Aari McDonald minutes

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Atlanta Dream head coach Mike Petersen (right), forward Tianna Hawkins (#21) and company huddle up after a discombobulating fourth quarter against the Washington Mystics on June 17 (Photo: Domenic Allegra)

Yikes

The Atlanta Dream have a defensive problem. In each of their last two games, the team raced out to an early lead and held onto it for most of the contest. Both times, they’ve collapsed.

Here’s the good news: they can fix it!

This has nothing to do with the clutch gene or the lack of defensive personnel or any sort of First Take-ism that you might want to dream up. Atlanta is fast, it is excellent in spurts, and it has multiple All-Defensive players on the roster.

The simple truth is that the Dream are tired. The team has been riddled with injury issues, but even that isn’t uncommon this season. Interim coach Mike Petersen can make adjustments with who is playing and when the team is applying pressure.

Pressure points: How the Dream can play smarter defense

When Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve called a timeout midway through the second quarter in Wednesday’s contest against the Dream, Atlanta led by 18 points and had just forced Minnesota’s 10th turnover.

That was peak Atlanta basketball, and on average, those turnovers came with about 17 seconds left on the shot clock. That’s important.

“We have a lot of quick guards I can get into the passing lanes,” Chennedy Carter said after the 87-85 loss. “I mean, we created a lot of first-half turnovers and converted them into easy transition layups and buckets. That’s what gives us more.”

The game plan quickly got away from Atlanta. When the team force turnovers, it is doing so early in the game and early in the shot clock. Those plays are leading to open buckets in transition, which Atlanta desperately needs to stay competitive.

Atlanta’s defensive sets are not overly complicated, but they work when the Dream have the energy to either blitz (double) on a pick-and-roll or when they lure defenses in before jumping into the passing lane. Here are just two of the umpteen examples from this season:

Even when the Dream aren’t clogging up the passing lanes, they’re making effective decisions before the other team’s offense has time to set up. The Dream wreak havoc when teams try to speed up against their defense early on in games:

This is what the team wants to see. However, just as there is a method to Atlanta’s defensive success, there is a madness to its failure.

When Atlanta’s pressure falls flat early in the shot clock, the team needs to quickly pivot back to a traditional defensive look. If the other team’s offense has already set up, the team should not be blitzing pick and rolls or overcommitting to a passing lane.

The only time pressure is mandatory for the Dream is when they’re trying to prevent a Sylvia Fowles-type post threat from getting the ball around the rim. Even that was unsuccessful against Minnesota, as Fowles finished with 26 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks.

As these games progressed during their losing streak, the Dream have been exhausted. The pressure has been too late. The double teams have been ineffective and late, which is a big reason why Atlanta, per Synergy, has the worst defense on spot-ups in the entire WNBA.

Here are two such examples from the game against the Lynx. In the first clip, Crystal Bradford’s help defense comes much too late. In the second clip, Tianna Hawkins’ help defense is too late and Cheyenne Parker is caught between two outside threats with no chance for recourse. Late in the game, the pressure has worn out its welcome.

“When we’re active, and we’re finding our players, finding our man on the defensive end, I think we’re one of the best defensive teams in the league,” Carter said. “When we get lazy and we get tired, that’s what we’ve got to work on and continue to push through those times … it’s just when we get gassed, we’ve just gotta learn to push through and have a little bit more heart.”

Simply put, the Dream are gassed at the end of games. Minimizing when they apply their pressure will conserve energy. Maximizing who gets to apply pressure will help as well.

How Mike Petersen can adjust his rotations and prevent exhaustion

No starting backcourt has a larger role than the Atlanta Dream. But Petersen still hasn’t found the right balance in his rotations, which is why the team is struggling to keep the energy to close out games. That should signal more minutes for Aari McDonald.

Unlike some rookies, the case for a McDonald-minutes bump isn’t predicated on development. She is the perfect fit for this roster — she is the perfect reliever for Atlanta’s starting guards.

McDonald has speed and energy to annoy the hell out of opposing defenses, and she goes at 100 percent regardless of her playing time. She can pick up the pressure before the offense sets itself — which, as discussed before, is when Atlanta thrives the most — and she can knock down open 3-pointers and space the floor.

That ferocity helps when the starting unit rests. But she’s averaging just eight minutes per game over the Dream’s last three contests.

Petersen said he couldn’t play McDonald for very long against Minnesota because the Lynx ran with Napheesa Collier at the 3, which forced Atlanta out of its small lineup — and yet, Odyssey Sims and Courtney Williams both placed 36 minutes, and both were clearly tired by the end of the game. Sims, in particular, faltered in the closing minute of the game. Supplementing their playing time with McDonald’s allows the Dream to play their swarming defense without sacrificing their energy.

Spacing minutes out will especially help Williams, who is leading the league with 35.3 minutes per game this season. At the start of the year, the potential All-Star guard improved as the game progressed because she needed time to find her rhythm. As the year has gone on, the script has flipped.

The things that make Williams great — speed and elevation — are non-existent when she’s tired. At the end of games, she’s getting gassed. Atlanta has to find ways to survive when she rests. A version of Williams with a few minutes of extra rest is the one that Atlanta wants to see.

Here’s some good news: Carter has returned.

“You got two buckets right there,” Carter said of her pairing with Williams. “I love playing with Courtney. Shoot, if we need a bucket, she’s going to get one, and if she’s not getting it then I’m gonna get one. We’re a dynamic duo, that’s hard to stop.”

As one of the fastest players in the league, Carter loves to use her speed in every aspect of the game — in transition, on the defensive end of the floor or blowing by her opponents. She didn’t miss a beat in her first game back from an injury, and Atlanta is a more dynamic team when she is on the floor. But the team’s grasp at a playoff spot hinges on the forthcoming adjustments that the staff either does or does not make.

The WNBA standings are congested. The Dream would sit in fourth place if they had closed out their last two games. Instead, they’re down at 11th, with a schedule that doesn’t get much easier (games against Las Vegas, Seattle and Connecticut) before the Olympic Break. It’s time to get hot.

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