Commentary

It's a dream of a start for Atlanta

Lone unbeaten (6-0) has played more cohesively than any other team in league so far

Originally Published: May 31, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

The other day I was contemplating what to write about to start this week and thought, "Hey, if the Dream win both games over the weekend and are 6-0, then I'm definitely writing about Atlanta."

[+] EnlargeAngel McCoughtry
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesAngel McCoughtry and Atlanta have won four of their season-opening six victories on the road.

Which was immediately followed in my mind, of course, by: "There's no way the Dream are actually going to do that. Atlanta won't leave Phoenix and Los Angeles with two victories."

But now here I am marveling -- I'll admit it -- at the Dream's 6-0 start. It sets up a Tuesday night matchup at Seattle (9:30 ET) between the East-leading Dream and the West-leading Storm. That will be Part 2 of an ESPN2 doubleheader, preceded at 7:30 p.m. ET by Phoenix visiting struggling Minnesota.

Not that the Mercury players are feeling all that great themselves after falling at home to the Dream. Sure, in the closing minutes of Friday's game at Phoenix, it looked as if Atlanta was going to succumb to a monumental gag after having been up by as much as 19 points. A collapse that could lead to a subsequent loss at L.A. and then a crisis in confidence. A lost opportunity, a letdown that might end up defining the whole season.

In fact, things had gone from dominant to perilous so quickly against the Mercury that I was already composing that storyline in my head: "The Dream let a golden opportunity slip away against the defending champions … "

But it didn't happen that way. Instead, the Dream survived a 16-0 flurry by Phoenix and held on by their fingernails for a 96-93 victory. Not too long after that on Friday in L.A., the Sparks won their first game of the season, beating visiting Washington 81-75.

So in Sunday's game at the Staples Center, the Dream had to show whether the high-wire act against Phoenix would carry over in a positive or negative way against the Sparks.

What we saw was the Dream overwhelm the Sparks 101-82, displaying more offensive weapons and stronger rebounding while taking far better care of the ball.

Four Dream players scored in double figures (Angel McCoughtry, Sancho Lyttle, Erika de Souza and Iziane Castro Marques) to two for the Sparks (Candace Parker, Tina Thompson). The Dream won the rebounding battle 39-31 and had half as many turnovers (nine to 18) as the Sparks.

Am I surprised by the Dream? Absolutely. Atlanta, in the days leading up to the start of this season, would have seemed at the very least in some disarray. It was made public that Chamique Holdsclaw had asked for a trade and wasn't going to report to the team.

Even though Holdsclaw had missed the end of the regular season last year and then been ineffective in one playoff game, she was still thought to be an important part of Atlanta's plans this season. Instead, she ended up being waived.

Thus, with that drama going on, one might have expected the Dream to be distracted or out of sorts. Instead, Atlanta has played more cohesively than any team in the league so far this season.

Castro Marques, Lyttle and de Souza each had the best season of their respective WNBA careers last year, and so it was logical to wonder whether there had been at least a little lightning-in-a-bottle factor that might not be replicated. Not that there was a doubt these players all are very talented. But could they all come back and be as good in 2010?

To this point in the season, they have been as good … or better. Lyttle is averaging 15.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, while de Souza is at 13.5 and 11.0. The 6-foot-4 Lyttle, 6-5 de Souza and 6-7 reserve Alison Bales -- back in the WNBA after missing last season -- combine to give the Dream a front line that is big and imposing, but also a good mix of experience and energetic youth.

That's something you could say about the entire Atlanta team. The average age of the players on the Dream roster is 26.2, putting Atlanta in right about the middle of the pack in that regard among the league's 12 teams.

[+] EnlargeSancho Lyttle
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesSancho Lyttle is averaging 15.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game for the Dream.

Which means several of the Dream players are just entering or are early on in their peak years as athletes. That includes de Souza and Castro Marques, both 28, and Lyttle, 26.

Then there are the two second-year players who start: One is the current top scorer in the league at 24.0 points per game, and the other doesn't have to score a single point to aid the Dream.

McCoughtry was last season's rookie of the year, an honor she was expected to contend for after being the league's No. 1 draft pick in 2009. McCoughtry was a can't-miss prospect and is living up to those expectations. She has started this season making a case for already being in the WNBA's elite despite being just 23.

Meanwhile, teammate Shalee Lehning, also 23, was taken in 2009 with the next-to-last pick of the second round, at No. 25 overall. There was much more talk about what it was perceived Lehning couldn't do at the pro level than what she could do.

I think of Lehning as like that person in an office whom you might overlook … until something goes wrong with the copier, and she's the only one who knows how to fix it. Or a file is misplaced, and she's the only one who can find it.

It's misleading to try to statistically measure how much Lehning makes an impact. What she does for the Dream is more "old-style" point guard: Manage games, avoid mistakes and recognize what she does and doesn't need to do to help her team.

For example, while at Kansas State, Lehning was heavily depended upon to rebound because the Wildcats were very undersized during her career, and she was exceptionally good at crashing the boards despite being just 5-9.

Now in Atlanta, with some of the best rebounders in the league, she's not needed to do that. So she has adjusted her game to focus on other things. And she plays with a selfless energy level that is very similar to teammates Kelly and Coco Miller, who at 31 are the Dream's oldest players.

I spoke to McCoughtry and Lehning last week. Both talked about how much the Dream's big women inside are the foundation to build around, making things easier for the guards and wings.

They also said that the Holdsclaw situation was really not a distraction because she didn't come to camp, and so the team began the season with the mindset of not having her. They both, young as they are, sounded like leaders for Atlanta -- players not just willing but eager to carry that weight.

Another bright spot in a very bright start for Atlanta? Four of its six games have been on the road. Five of the next seven are also road games. So if the Dream can continue to play as well as they have away from Atlanta, the team could be in great position by June 23. Then, Atlanta will be home for six in a row.

Admittedly, teams can get derailed almost frighteningly quickly in the WNBA. And often as not, it happens without much warning. So the Dream's terrific start is, still, just a start.

But it's a beginning every other team in the league wishes it had.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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