May 21, 2021 

Despite the loss, a glimpse into the Dream’s bright future

Deconstructing what's working for Atlanta through two games

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Courtney Williams (#10) celebrates against the Chicago Sky. (Photo via Bryce France)

Atlanta kicking itself after a slow start

When Atlanta Dream interim coach Mike Petersen spoke to reporters after the season-opening loss to the Connecticut Sun, he stressed that the team needed to get off to a better start against Chicago. Much to his dismay, the Dream fell to the short-handed Sky 85-77 on Wednesday, with a slow first half and a feeling of deja vu.

The Dream looked lethargic in the first two quarters, and though the 23-point deficit abated to 18 by halftime, the Dream still scrambled for answers in the locker room.

“At halftime, I told the team that the issues we had were not diagrammatical,” Petersen said. “That’s not a cop-out, that’s not me blaming anybody … But the biggest thing was we just didn’t have the right energy at the start.”

That changed in the second half.

In the final 20 minutes, Atlanta’s effort, transition offense and chemistry finally took shape. The Dream didn’t just show us that they have the pieces to win, they showed that they can be entertaining while doing it. A 23-point comeback would have been the largest in the Dream’s history, so cutting that lead down to one point and finishing the game within single digits does count for something.

“When we’re aggressive, good things happen,” Elizabeth Williams said. “In our starts in these first couple of games, we haven’t executed our game plan by being aggressive, but then later on, once we run our traps and do different types of things, we’re really disruptive.”

Even though the game still goes down as a loss in the standings — and Petersen has stressed that he doesn’t believe in moral victories — there are signs that Atlanta is a much better team than its record suggests.

What is clicking, and why it should make Atlanta optimistic

For Atlanta, it all starts on the defensive end of the floor.

Through their first two contests, the Dream are averaging 15.5 steals per game — a mark that would eclipse the 1997 Phoenix Mercury’s record by 2.3 steals (per Her Hoop Stats) and exceed their own marks from the last two seasons combined.

This playing style isn’t going anywhere, and as a result, Atlanta has a decent shot to become the first WNBA team to eclipse 10 steals per game since 2013.

How are they getting it done? Against Chicago, Atlanta repeatedly blitzed the pick and roll, sending the on-ball guard defender and off-ball roll defender at the ball-handler and trusting that the second forward in the paint was back for help. Needless to say, it worked. The broadcast captured rare footage: Courtney Vandersloot passed into multiple turnovers.

Beyond its pick and roll coverage, Atlanta’s roster is constantly seeking the ball in passing lanes. The Dream want to wreak havoc in the open court, and their chemistry is steadily improving to make this a reality. The defensive versatility of their bigs certainly helps.

“For me, [I’m] just using my strength to my advantage,” forward Monique Billings said. “I’m fast and quick, being able to get my hands on balls, being active, being able to guard one through five and get a steal in position … We always talk about causing chaos, being disruptive, that’s our team identity.”

Despite being outrebounded 47-35, the Dream still took seven more shots than the Sky. Unlike in the opener, however, it seemed like the Dream knew how to play off of one another in transition, beginning with Chennedy Carter as the first player out on the break. Carter had 21 points against Chicago, and through two games she’s getting much of her offense in transition.

There aren’t many players who are scarier than Carter when she has a full head of steam. For the speed she plays at, she reads the game as well as anyone in the league.

“I think once I get in the flow of the game it kind of comes together for me,” Carter said. “I start making the right reads and decisions and all of a sudden me and my team are getting a little boost, getting some energy and putting points on the board.”

All that said, Carter is still an elite halfcourt player, and she’s made strides playing off of Atlanta’s bigs. Carter doesn’t need a ton of space to operate, which is why she can play with almost any rotation that the Dream throw out. Against Chicago, Carter was unpredictable on the perimeter, alternating between using and denying the ball screen to gain a burst of speed to the rim.

She wasn’t perfect against the Sky, though, and her shots didn’t fall unless she was using speed to her advantage. Midrange jumpers will likely be a heavy ingredient in her practice recipe, as she missed four of her five pull-up jumpers. That isn’t a common phenomenon in her game, but there is work to be done.

More than effort: where the Dream can’t falter again

Carter, Tiffany Hayes and Odyssey Sims can score over opposing bigs. But only one of them has done it consistently. Atlanta is shooting just 42.6 percent in the restricted area, which is by far the worst mark in the league through Thursday’s games. The Dream have lacked any real post scoring in the opening week due to their bevy of driving guards and the absence of Cheyenne Parker.

Sims and Hayes also haven’t gotten much going inside, and Hayes shot just 1-for-10 from in her return to Atlanta. Though there is room for skepticism, the Dream don’t seem all that concerned.

“All that tells me is that she’s going 11-for-11 next time,” Petersen said.

Atlanta’s transition offense is so electric because of the blitz, but the strategy also allows the opponent to have an extra player down low for offensive rebounds. By my count, the Dream allowed five offensive rebounds off of blitzing or hedging the pick and roll, an even mark to its five steals off of a blitz. With every push comes a pull.

The brilliance of Courtney Williams’ outside game

How have we gotten this far without mentioning Courtney Williams?

In short — she will not miss a midrange shot. Against the Sky, Williams scored 24 points while adding eight rebounds, three steals and two assists, and through two games, she’s still taking far more mid-range shots than anyone else in the league. Williams and Carter shared the court for the entirety of the second half, and their synergy hasn’t missed a beat since last season.

While many see the long two as a relic of the old game, Williams’ midrange game spaces the floor for Atlanta, given that the shot often comes off of a quick dribble from the 3-point line. It is also by far her most efficient shot. Last season, Williams shot 48.4 percent on shots from 16-24 feet, making more than twice as many as anyone else in the league.

Defenders still respect her 3-point shot, because when they don’t this happens.

Williams still hits her open 3-pointers, but when teams forget about her midrange, she’ll make you pay:

Williams’ game has been a microcosm of Atlanta: through two games, she’s averaging 14.5 points (second-best in the WNBA) on 66.7 percent shooting. In the first half, she’s dipped down to 5.0 points on 33 percent shooting. It’s no coincidence that the Dream are going into halftimes down an average of 15.5 points and still managing to win the second half.

Whether it’s with her trash-talk, shot-making, crossovers or postgame press conferences, Courtney Williams reminds us why we love this game. If she can get into a rhythm early against the Fever on Friday evening, the Dream will almost certainly capture their first win of the season. Jamais vu.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream & Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Pennant on August 2, 2021 at 10:27 pm

    Not only did I get great insight, I learned a new phrase!

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