Dream have ‘totally different team’ to open second half and eye playoffs

Atlanta Dream players huddle during game against Minnesota Lynx on Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Minnesota. (Kelsey Bibik/Atlanta Dream)

Credit: Atlanta Dream

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Atlanta Dream players huddle during game against Minnesota Lynx on Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Minnesota. (Kelsey Bibik/Atlanta Dream)

Credit: Atlanta Dream

The last time the Dream stepped onto their home floor July 11, a double-digit loss to four-win Indiana sounded off plenty of alarms. It showed plenty of signs that the Dream were continuing to spiral, and it went beyond a lengthy skid of nine losses in 11 games.

The Dream had taken a lot of hits. One blow came after another, and it started to show. Veteran forward Shekinna Stricklen put it rather bluntly, the Dream had a lot of “negative tension” after a suspension of their young guard Chennedy Carter, a serious injury to their leader Tiffany Hayes and every other small distraction to fill in the gaps.

“It had been a whirlwind,” said interim coach Darius Taylor, who assumed leadership duties during the Olympic break after interim coach Mike Petersen decided to step down.

A young Dream squad needed some answers. They had the talent, which came in an early-season flash of wins after signing a handful of veteran free agents. They had potential to progress in their so-called rebuild, but something felt off.

The Dream had a month without games to figure it out. A brief moment of relaxation — possibly with some palm trees and summer heat — did the trick. The Dream, after a 17-day hiatus, returned to the practice grounds of Agnes Scott College with a reinvigorated spirit.

A new coach in the fold and the addition of veteran Candice Dupree renewed belief. The 13-loss Dream were alive again. They had the swagger and confidence that came to life during a May win streak.

The Dream had the energy of 14 young children running around the court with a basketball. A sense of maturity of accountability followed. The team had positivity back because the players knew that an opportunity to restart presented itself. The Dream worked behind the scenes in ways that they couldn’t when a slew of distractions ravaged morale.

“From the first day, out of the gate, we had it,” rookie guard Aari McDonald said. “I’m really excited for it to translate to the game.”

The Dream (6-13) opens the closing stretch of the season at Phoenix on Sunday. One might think the Dream are down-and-out with no chance to contend or compete. A different thought, however, persists in the team’s locker room.

The Dream have four games in six days, most of which are across the country. The stretch of frequent play, though, gives the team a chance to quickly regain momentum. Each of those opponents, until the Aug. 24 meeting with the Chicago Sky, have losing records and sit in a similar spot to the Dream in the WNBA standings.

“It’s important to get off to a good start for our momentum, and we’d obviously like to go undefeated on the trip,” Taylor said. “We have to fight, scrap and claw during each game. It’s tough to win in this league, but we have to give ourselves a chance and let the chips fall.”

Taylor didn’t waste much time to make his intentions clear. In his first meeting with reporters, he said the Dream will feature a lot of the same qualities. At the same time, things had to change for the team to find winning ways again. The first-year head coach wanted to use his own approach to jump at that opportunity. He wasn’t going to use this chance to simply guide the Dream to the end of the season without a freefall.

The Dream has the same goal the team set at the beginning of the season — make the playoffs.

“This is a fresh start. We have a great chance to get in the playoffs, and that’s our mindset. We need to show everybody that this is a totally different team,” Stricklen said. “That team you saw in the first half is gone. This is a team you will want to watch play.”

Added Taylor: “We’re not counting ourselves out because we’re only a few games out of that eighth (and final playoff) spot.”

The fine-tuning of the Dream’s approach during the past two weeks of a midseason training camp will show itself in a few ways.

Despite the overhaul of changes, the Dream have some continuity. There haven’t been many changes to the roster, other than those that came unexpectedly. The two coaching changes were made with those previously on staff, so the Dream still have those relationships in place.

Therefore, Taylor’s priority has been to enhance team connection. The Dream have enhanced chemistry in a number of ways, including a team-wide venture to an escape room. Every avenue that the Dream had to draw closer together, Taylor has taken it.

“We’ve settled into, ‘This is who we are, and this is what we have,’” Taylor said. “We’ll work with what we’ve got, and we’ve bonded a lot.”

The Dream’s scheme might look similar. Taylor doesn’t worry too much about the offense and believes the Dream have playmakers and scoring options, although the frontcourt players will see more touches. His worry, however, rests in his defense, which has lacked consistency and allowed a franchise-high 110 points to the Las Vegas Aces on July 4.

The Dream’s defense ranks last in the league in a number of categories, according to Her Hoop Stats, including two-point percentage (50.9%), 3-point percentage (41%) and points per play (0.97). Taylor gave his team the mission of shoring up its effort and production on defense, and they’ve shown strides during each practice session.

“We will be better,” Taylor said.

On Sunday, the Dream returns to their steep hill to climb to return to contention. The Dream thinks they found an answer and are ready to show it off.

“Everybody’s having fun again,” Stricklen said. “We’re back to being ourselves.”