September 9, 2020 

How the Atlanta Dream can make the playoffs

A game-by-game guide to Atlanta winning out

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Betnijah Laney, a candidate for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player, could get to show off her skills in the playoffs if the Atlanta Dream can win its last three games.

With just three games left in the 2020 season, the Atlanta Dream are in a unique position. They’re not quite in the conversation for the eighth playoff spot, but they’re not mathematically eliminated from it, either.

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What feels like forever ago, but was actually just over six weeks ago, the Dream started the season off with a 2-1 record. Atlanta’s first loss of the season came by 30 points to the Las Vegas Aces, but it didn’t feel like anything to panic over. It was a 10 p.m. tipoff, the Dream had a shortened warmup and were without Kalani Brown, Glory Johnson and Courtney Williams.  

In retrospect, that should have been the beginnings of concern for this Atlanta team. While the Dream did come back and win their next outing, it was a single-digit win over the New York Liberty — and the game in which Sabrina Ionescu got hurt.

Then Atlanta lost 10 straight. The offense was inconsistent, the defense was frequently missing in action, and the Dream just didn’t look like a cohesive team. For every close, single-digit loss — like a 93-92 loss to the Seattle Storm on August 6 — there was a blowout loss, like the franchise-worst 37-point loss to the Storm on August 12.

In that stretch, Chennedy Carter missed six games with an ankle sprain, and her impact on the team’s performance is enormous. But toward the end of the losing streak, Atlanta started to come together and look like a more cohesive unit on the floor. The wins still weren’t coming, but the games were more competitive.

The last game before Carter’s return, the Dream bested the Lynx, 78-75. It was a new kind of win for the Dream and got some momentum going for the last few games of the year.

Now, with three games left, Atlanta has won three of its last six games and is, at least mathematically, still in contention for the playoffs. Let’s take a look at the last three matchups and what needs to go right for the Dream to get the win in each one.

9/9: Chicago Sky

Last meeting: August 16, Sky won 92-67

The first time these two teams met, the final score reflects more of a dismal performance from the Dream on both ends of the floor than anything extraordinary by the Sky. They were certainly quite good — Cheyenne Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Kahleah Copper all scored in double figures — but Vandersloot had just five assists, a fairly pedestrian number for her.

Chicago shot 57.8 percent overall and 50 percent from three-point range, which is where the game got away from the Dream. Atlanta made just two of the 14 threes it took and shot just 39.7 percent from the floor. The Dream also got out-rebounded, 37-26, and 32-18 on the defensive glass. Clearly, the defense wasn’t all there, and the offense sans Carter was largely ineffective.

Having Carter back is essential for Atlanta’s success, both in this game and in every other matchup. She’s the kind of player that can take over a game, whether it’s with her own scoring or finding her teammates. Of course, Vandersloot is also the kind of player that can take over a game, so Atlanta will have its hands full with her.

Chicago has just one win in its last six games, so it’s possible that the Dream will be able to capitalize on a team that’s struggled lately — but it’s equally possible that the Sky will snap out of the slump. Either way, this one has the makings of Atlanta’s most difficult remaining game.

9/11: Connecticut Sun

Last meeting: August 10, Sun won 93-82

When the Dream and the Sun meet, there’s always interesting storylines swirling around the people on the court. This year, not only is there the story that Nicki Collen was Curt Miller’s assistant before taking the Atlanta job, there’s also the story that both Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen played for Connecticut last year.

The last time they played, Stricklen had 18 points on an eye-popping six threes. But Stricklen has been battling a shoulder injury lately and her shot hasn’t quite been there — she’s averaged just 4.18 points per game since the game against the Sun, including three scoreless outings.

Williams, on the other hand, has found her groove of late and seems poised to have an even stronger game than the 12 points she dropped against Connecticut last time. That last matchup was also the game in which Carter got hurt, so having her for more than three minutes will undoubtedly be key.

Alyssa Thomas torched the Dream for 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting in the last matchup, so stopping her will be the biggest key for Atlanta to have success. Just like in the game against the Sky, having Carter back will also be crucial. If the Dream can get some offense going through Carter and limit Thomas just a bit more, the potential for a win is there.

9/13: Washington Mystics

Last meeting: August 19, Mystics won 98-91

Of these three matchups, the Dream’s last game against the Mystics was by far the closest. Atlanta was within a few points late in the game and intentionally fouled to try to win, so Washington made free throws down the stretch and the final score reflects that.

The Mystics have just three wins in their last 15 games and Sunday’s game will finish a stretch of four games in six days, including a back-to-back to finish. Stella Johnson, who caught fire against Atlanta in the last meeting to the tune of 25 points, hasn’t played since August 23 and is unlikely to be available for the game.

Williams and Betnijah Laney combined for 65 points the last time these teams played. The rest of the roster contributed a combined 26 points. It’s highly unlikely that the Dream will get that kind of individual success again, but with Carter back and Glory Johnson finding her footing lately, they won’t need that kind of output from two players to get a win.

Given the closeness of the last matchup and the Mystics’ performance of late, this is probably Atlanta’s most winnable remaining game. They need to win them all — and have a few things they can’t control go their way — but at the very least, if the Dream can win this game, they’ll head toward 2021 with some momentum.

Written by Bailey Johnson

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