September 16, 2020 

‘They could have quit a long time ago’: Dream end season with positive takeaways

The Dream dropped their last game of the season to the Mystics on Sunday

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Chennedy Carter #3 of the Atlanta Dream handles the ball against the Washington Mystics on September 13, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

When Nicki Collen sat down for her postgame press conference after Atlanta’s final game of the season — an 85-78 loss to the Washington Mystics — the emotions of the previous 36 hours were written all over her face.

Collen and her team woke up Saturday morning thinking they still controlled their destiny to make the playoffs. After calling the league office to clarify the tiebreaking procedures, Collen learned that if Washington beat New York on Saturday, the Dream were out — regardless of their result on Sunday.

The Mystics beat the Liberty, 75-58, on Saturday afternoon, and with that, Atlanta was eliminated from playoff contention. Suddenly, the Dream had to switch from preparing for what they thought would be a win-or-go-home game on Sunday to knowing they were going home regardless.

“It was tough because we didn’t think that that was going to happen,” forward Betnijah Laney said after Sunday’s game. “We thought that we would be fighting for an opportunity to play in the playoffs just because of the way that we were finishing. Regardless of that, we just wanted to come out and finish strong and give it our all. I think that we did that.”

After a challenging season which saw three players test positive for COVID-19, Chennedy Carter miss six games with an ankle injury and a 10-game losing streak, Atlanta battled back to be in contention for the playoffs in the final weekend of the season. To their credit, the Dream didn’t show up to Sunday’s game looking like they were ready to leave.

Neither team led by double-digits. The Mystics’ largest lead, nine points, came with just 42 seconds left. But there’s a different level of drive when a team is playing for a playoff spot, and Washington had just that little extra edge to come out on top.

“I think when it comes down to that scrapping for a loose ball or that last rebound that you get in a tussle for or one extra rotation,” Collen said. “I think when you’re playing for a playoff spot — I think my guys played really, really hard, but I think you just have a little extra juice in that scenario. That’s what they had even coming off a back to back. I thought we could get to them in the second half because they were coming off a back to back. They certainly had the emotional adrenaline of knowing they needed to win to advance.”

So, after 69 days in the bubble, after one final game, Collen sat down for one last press conference. It was an emotional five minutes as she recounted the growth of her team throughout their time in Florida and the challenges they went through along the way.

“I’ll tell you a little of what I just told them,” Collen said before pausing to collect her thoughts. With a bit of a shake in her voice, she continued.

“I just think the odds were stacked against this team and they could have quit a long time ago. You don’t have two players opt out by choice coming into this. Then three players get COVID and show up late. Have your point guard, who’s got a Rookie of the Year campaign going, have an injury. It wasn’t easy. I just thought that they just kept working. It started kind of with leadership from Blake [Dietrick] and Elizabeth [Williams]. They came to work every day. They weren’t always perfect, but I think that we just got better. I wish that we had been playing for something today.”

A month ago, Atlanta was in the heart of its 10-game losing streak. It would’ve been almost unthinkable that the Dream would come back and get so close to the playoffs, but they managed to do it anyway.

Despite knowing they weren’t playing for the playoffs, Laney capped her breakout season with a game-high 27 points for one final data point in her campaign for the Most Improved Player. Carter dropped 26 of her own to finish out her rookie campaign averaging 17.4 points per game. Dietrick added four assists off the bench — her ninth-straight multi-assist game.

It wasn’t enough, in the end, to overcome a team that was playing for something, but it was a good showing nonetheless. As Collen said, they could’ve quit a long time ago, but they never did, not even in the last game when they knew they were leaving the bubble in the morning.

“I think we had a lot of positives,” Laney said. “Starting off people didn’t think that we would have been in the position that we were in. Regardless of the obstacles that we faced, we continued to fight, we continued to get better as a team, building our chemistry and everything.

“Even though we didn’t end the way we would have wanted to, I think just the fact that we were fighting for a playoff spot just a few days ago really says a lot about our team. Numerous amount of games, we were right there. As long as we just take this momentum into next year and continue to grow, continue to build, I think we’ll be all right.”

Written by Bailey Johnson

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