A spot in the WNBA Eastern Conference playoffs is almost assured for the Dream for the sixth consecutive season and they played like it on Sunday in a desultory 83-76 loss to the New York Liberty at Philips Arena.
With a four-game lead on second-place Washington with seven games to play, the Dream tried to play catch-up in the final quarter after falling behind by nine following a 13-2 Liberty run in the third period. But the Dream was out-rebounded and couldn’t make the comeback materialize. And it was doubly disappointing because it came on the day that coach Michael Cooper was able to return to the bench from a four-game absence.
The victory sealed a 3-1 season series win for New York against the Dream, now 11-4 at home this season.
“I say it’s a curse of the second half. For the six years that I have been here, every time it’s the second half, we play this way until the playoffs,” Sancho Lyttle said. “I don’t know why, but I want to live to see the day that we don’t.
The Dream rallied from an early deficit to take leads of 21-16 and 32-29 before settling for a 35-34 advantage at halftime.
From there New York took charge behind Tina Charles, who scored 10 of her game-high 29 points in the third quarter and boosted the Liberty to a 60-51 advantage. The Liberty used a 34-26 rebound advantage to keep the Dream at bay. It was a season low in rebounding for the Dream.
“That is what really stuck out to the whole team today,” said assistant coach Karleen Thompson, who has been running the bench in Cooper’s absence. “Rebounding is a key to our offense. We get out and run. We usually own the boards and whenever teams crash offensively it slows our run down, it forces us into a half-court game so we definitely need to pick it up in that aspect.”
Angel McCoughtry scored a team-high 28 and had six rebounds for the Dream. Lyttle scored 16 and also had six rebounds.
“We’re known for rebounding and teams kind of try to not make us do it,” Lyttle said. “Some of the boards were very long and the guards weren’t coming back so they got a lot of long rebounds.”
It was Cooper’s first sideline appearance since his July 24 surgery to treat tongue cancer. Before the start of the game, Cooper was recognized on the Jumbotron. He stood up from the bench and waved to fans and they rooted for “Coop.” Throughout the game, Cooper used a white board to advise players on the sideline.
Thompson said: “He’s here; he’s doing well. He can’t yell as much as he probably wants to.”
Cooper will now travel with the Dream and be on the sideline as they begin a four-game trip on Tuesday at the Phoenix Mercury and the trip will include games in Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com