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Monique Billings #25 of the Atlanta Dream drives to the basket against the Minnesota Lynx on August 23, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)
Cheryl Reeve could hear Nicki Collen at halftime.
The designated home and visitor locker rooms aren’t very far apart at the soundstage in Florida where the 2020 WNBA season is taking place. When Collen expressed her frustrations with the Dream’s first-half performance, Reeve and the Lynx could hear every word.
“We could hear, because we’re in such close proximity,” Reeve said. “They were incredibly frustrated and disappointed, and they turned the tables on us, got physical and aggressive with us, and it got us back on our heels.”
Minnesota led 41-30 at halftime and led by as many as 14 points in the first half. Atlanta didn’t shoot the ball well, wasn’t locked in on defense and was getting beaten on both the offensive and defensive glass.
In the locker room at halftime, Collen gave her team one challenge: be tougher.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of halftime speech about Xs and Os,” Collen said. “It was about heart. It was about toughness.”
Added guard Blake Dietrick: “She gave it to us. She got into us, but rightly so. She said we weren’t playing with any toughness. We knew that Minnesota’s a really, really physical team and they want to come out and pressure you and make things difficult. We kinda took it on the nose in the first half but then I think in the second half, we were the aggressor. We were punching back. We were making things difficult for them, and that’s when the tide turned for us.”
In the first 90 seconds of the third quarter, the Lynx added to their lead. Then the Dream started chipping away.
First Atlanta cut it to nine points, and Minnesota took the lead back to 12. The Dream got within eight, and then the deficit became 10.
But Atlanta wouldn’t go away. The deficit narrowed to seven, then five, then the game was tied. When the Lynx retook the lead, the Dream were right there to tie things up to end the quarter.
With 27 third-quarter points, including eight points from Betnijah Laney, and numerous rebounds from Laney and Monique Billings, Atlanta tied the game going into the fourth quarter.
And with 6:32 left in the game, Shekinna Stricklen made her second three of the game — her first made basket since the first minute of the game. She gave the Dream a one-point lead, and they didn’t look back.
“I think that’s really important,” Collen said. “Hanging onto a late win, battling back to a tie to go into the fourth after being down 11 at the half. I think we chipped away at it. And when we took the lead, we still guarded. We gave up some shots that we wouldn’t want to give up, but we only gave them one shot.”
The win shouldn’t be mistaken as some kind of turning point and key moment for this team, but it’s important nonetheless.
Billings dropped 15 points in the second half and finished with 16 total points and 13 rebounds for her third double-double of the season. Laney finished two rebounds shy of a triple double and notched her second-straight double-double with double-digit assists. Dietrick added 13 points off the bench to go with five assists and just two turnovers. Every player that entered the game scored.
It’s been a rocky, complicated road for Atlanta this season. With such a compressed schedule, 10 new players and three players missing training camp due to COVID-19, it’s taken time for the team to settle in and learn each other.
“Had we not had a pandemic, had we had a real training camp and a normal 36-game schedule, I’m not sure this team would’ve been good in June,” Collen said. “You’re talking about 10 new players on a team and that doesn’t include not having Tiffany Hayes and not having Renee Montgomery and some of the key pieces to this organization. I think this team was always gonna be in a growth mode. We knew it was gonna be a process. We always expected to be playing our better basketball late.”
Now, just over halfway through the season, the improvements are visible. Even in the games before Atlanta snapped its losing streak, there was clear progress. With just a couple of exceptions, the Dream have gotten better in almost every game.
They forced Phoenix to put their starters back in in the fourth quarter of that game on August 14. Wednesday, Washington only pulled away because it made free throws down the stretch while Atlanta intentionally fouled to try to hang onto a chance at the win. The Dream took Los Angeles to overtime on Friday.
And finally, on Sunday, they broke through for a win.
“We’re getting better because we’re practicing in games,” Collen said. “That’s what we’re doing. We don’t have practice. We never got to have a practice with Glory Johnson or Courtney Williams or Kalani Brown. Not one. Our practice is games. We’re getting better because our players are learning each other. When you look at our assist numbers — the last game we were 27 assists on 33 baskets. Tonight, 23 assists on 32 baskets.
“We’re learning to move the basketball. We’re learning to share the basketball. We’re not making every shot. We missed some two-footers around the rim. We missed some open shots. Courtney [Williams] missed some open shots from around the perimeter, but we’re moving the basketball and we’re finding each other because that’s our only opportunity to grow is when we play. We have to treat games as growth opportunities.”