Three straight losses. Then, three straight wins. And then, three straight losses.
Throughout the month of June, the trajectory of the Atlanta Dream resembled that of the Great American Scream Machine at nearby Six Flags Over Georgia. At their best, they showed themselves to be a surefire playoff team that could give a top-four seed a test in the first round due to their toughness, tenacity and shotmaking. At their worst, they look like a lottery-bound mess, gifting opponents easy transition points because of a torrent of live-ball turnovers.
If this pattern of ups and downs is to continue into July, Friday night’s 94-89 victory over the Washington Mystics presages (mostly) positive things for Dream’s upcoming slate, when they will meet the Sparks at home on Sunday (3 p.m. ET) before a game in LA (July 5 at 10 p.m. ET), then followed by a set against the Sky in Chicago (July 7 at 8 p.m. ET, July 9 at 8 p.m. ET).
But then what happens? Another plummet of poor play?
If Atlanta wants to emerge above the muddled morass of mid where much of the league is mired, establishing a discernible level of consistency is necessary. Here are three questions that will help determine if Atlanta can exit this roller-coaster ride.
Can the Dream’s wings give Atlanta the advantage against LA?
The Sparks have an interesting, albeit imbalanced, roster, with a group of speedy and sharpshooting guards and a rotation of versatile bigs captained by All-Star Nneka Ogwumike.
None of these players are optimally equipped to guard Allisha Gray or Rhyne Howard. The dynamic duo should have the opportunity to put on an offensive show.
Against Washington on Friday night, Gray, deservedly named a first-time All-Star on Saturday, further bolstered her already air-tight resume with a 26-point masterclass, with half of her points coming in the fourth quarter. (And congrats to her fellow first-time All-Star honoree, Cheyenne Parker!).
Gray succeeded in the ways she has throughout the season, and how she should be able to succeed against LA — relentlessly seeking to score by charging into the paint before getting all the way to basket or rising up in her favored short mid-range. Although not the most efficient shot, her comfort in the short midrange zone should serve her well, as Gray can use her strength to get past the Sparks’ guards while also avoiding the interior size of the Ogwumike sisters, Azurá Stevens and Dearica Hamby.
Howard also should aim to replicate her performance from Friday evening. In scoring 14 points, she complemented her characteristic jumpers with drives and cuts to the basket. Her 11-point first quarter featured a pair of threes and two driving buckets. After occupying the attention of the Mystics’ defense, she primarily served as a facilitator, dishing a season-high eight assists by passing over the pressure applied by Washington’s defenders. When matched up against one of LA’s guards, Howard need not settle for deep jumpers, but use her size to open more advantageous scoring or playmaking opportunities.
Can the Dream again overwhelm the Sky?
A late-May victory over Chicago arguably was Atlanta’s best performance of the season.
Throughout the game, the Dream applied their superior size and athleticism — with a high degree of aggression. Atlanta swatted eight shots and snagged eight steals, protecting the paint and disrupting passes in a manner that clearly discouraged the Sky.
Of course, successfully following this template is easier said than done. As reflected by their fluctuating record, Atlanta has struggled always to activate their athletic advantage.
Laeticia Amihere, who saw only four late minutes in the first contest against Chicago, could provide that extra injection of athletic energy, all at 6-foot-3 with a super-long wingspan. A recent entry to the rotation, Amihere’s activity pops every time she takes the court. Although her efforts feature plenty of rookie foibles, she has flashed a fearlessness when challenging defenders at the basket and fighting for boards.
In an otherwise forgettable defeat at Washington on Wednesday, Amihere offered something worth remembering, earning 12 trips to the free throw line in her 17 minutes of action. Her seven points were complemented by five boards, two assists, a steal and a block, a stat line that previews her potential.
Can the Dream rediscover their resiliency?
Last season, one of the defining characteristics of Tanisha Wright’s team was their resiliency. Even when a win was hard to come by, Atlanta consistently fought to the finish in each contest, not allowing opponents to cruise to an easy win.
This season, the Dream disappointingly have fallen into stretches of lethargy during losses, allowing missed shots, turnovers and poor transition defense to accumulate until the score is out of hand. Wednesday’s loss to Washington epitomized this feedback loop of doom.
In Friday’s fourth quarter, Wright torpedoed a potential 5-on-4 opportunity to call a timeout and unleash a torrent of fury, demanding the attention to detail needed to avoid a late collapse. While Atlanta hung on for the victory, Wright’s decision suggests an acute awareness of her team’s waning fire and focus. Moving forward, it is worth watching if the players on-court can find ways to steady themselves when things threaten to spiral.