Harding at home in Dream backcourt
When she faced the Atlanta Dream last season in the first round of the WNBA playoffs, Lindsey Harding kept thinking, "This team is a real pain in the neck to defend."
Harding and the Washington Mystics had won their regular-season finale in Atlanta to clinch first place in the Eastern Conference for all the good that ended up doing them.
Sure, there was a celebration -- for a change -- in Mysticsland. But three days later, Atlanta came to D.C. for Game 1 of the conference semifinals and won by five. Then the Dream finished the series with a 24-point victory two days after that.
Harding recalls the Dream's scoring options in that last meeting coming at the Mystics sort of like the old "Asteroids" video game: constantly, from all directions.
"Going back on defense over and over, it was two on one or three on one," Harding said. "Like, 'Holy cow!' It wasn't just one of them; it was all of them. Which is why it was such a draw to go there. As a point guard, if you have that many options, it makes your job a little bit easier."
Thanks to a draft-day trade in April that Dream coach Marynell Meadors said "went down to the wire," Harding is in an Atlanta uniform. No more trying to stop the Dream. Now, Harding hopes to make Atlanta as unstoppable as possible.
She'll be part of the Dream contingent that will play an exhibition game this Sunday in Manchester, England. Star Angel McCoughtry won't be going because of a knee strain, but the Dream will try to make the best of that by seeing how well they can play without one of the WNBA's premier scorers.
Harding, who competed this past winter in Russia, has not visited England before. So she's looking forward to seeing the country that will host the 2012 Olympic Summer Games. And she sounded very upbeat about her new WNBA home in Georgia -- a feeling that seems to be mutual.
"I wanted to keep our core together," Meadors said of the group that fell in the WNBA Finals to Seattle. "But we knew that we also had to make our point guard position deeper, and be sure that whoever we got for that was going to make some shots. When your point guard really doesn't score a lot, it's 5-on-4, and that's one of the things that hurt us when we played Seattle."
Admittedly, most teams can look point guard deficient when pitted against a squad in which Sue Bird is at point. But Meadors knew it wasn't just that matchup with the Storm that potentially could give Atlanta trouble in its hopes to win a WNBA title.
So she looked for a long-term solution, and Harding was the first name on the Dream's wish list.
Harding had an injury-shortened rookie season for Minnesota in 2007, and also missed 10 games in 2008. The Lynx dealt her to Washington before the 2009 season, and she was very durable the next two years for the Mystics. She averaged 12.8 points and 4.5 assists in 2009, and 12.1 and 4.0 in 2010.
But personally and professionally, Harding felt it was time to move on from D.C., and she let the Mystics know that. New coach/GM Trudi Lacey agreed to the deal that sent Harding and a 2012 second-round pick to the Dream for draft pick Ta'Shia Phillips, Kelly Miller and a 2012 first-round selection.
"I started as soon as we could begin talking to free agents, Jan. 15," Meadors said of working to get Harding. "It took us all the way up to an hour before the draft started.
"We would break down defensively at the point guard position at times last year, and it would cause our posts to get fouls. Lindsey does defend really hard. And offensively, just watching her in the past four years in the league, I don't think she's ever played in a system that really fit her. I think she is in a system that does fit her now."
Will she fit in personality-wise, too? New teammate Iziane Castro Marques says Harding already does.
"Sometimes I forget she wasn't on the team last year," Castro Marques said. "She brings a lot to this team; she's the point guard we needed to push the ball more. Now, I think we really have what it takes."
The Dream actually weren't that far away a year ago; all three losses to Seattle in the WNBA finals were by three points or fewer. Shalee Lehning, who is not a significant scoring threat but a very solid distributor, had started at point guard throughout the regular season. When the postseason began, Meadors switched to a different lineup in which Lehning and post player Erika DeSouza came off the bench, with guards Armintie Price and Kelly Miller starting.
Basically, Lehning, Price and Miller combined last season to bring certain playmaking or scoring elements to the Dream. But when healthy and at her best, Harding offers all of those traits in one player.
"I felt like when I got to D.C., they gave me the opportunity to grow as a player," Harding said. "I found myself taking a huge leap from my first two seasons in the WNBA to my last two.
"We all want to be in a situation to win and to play your best basketball. A lot of teams called to talk to me in the offseason, Atlanta stuck out for many reasons. For one, their style of play. And I have a family tie to this region: I am originally from Alabama. To have the chance to play in a system you think will be perfect for you and have some of your family there, that's the best situation you can have."
Also, former Duke teammate Alison Bales is with the Dream, which just made Atlanta feel all the more familiar to Harding.
"In college, we'd do this thing where I'd pass it to her and then do a back cut, and she hit me for a layup," Harding said. "We did it the first day of practice here, and everyone was like, 'That's the Duke connection.' And we laughed; it's great to have her here."
Such chemistry is harder to maintain than some might think. Meadors thought the fact everyone did get along well was one of the key factors in Atlanta getting as far as it did last season. She expects Harding to fit in, too.
Those who cast a critical eye toward Harding will say the final arbiter on just how good a point guard she really is will come down to winning a title. She turns 27 in June, so she is in the midst of her athletic peak as a player. And she feels she has grown in the ways that are most crucial for a point guard.
"With experience comes better decision-making, and you play with a little more poise," Harding said. "You understand the game better, and situations. You take more ownership of things.
"It's sort of like going from my first year in college -- where it's like, 'What do I do?' -- to my senior year. Then it was like, 'You control this team.' The moment I came here to Atlanta, it felt like I could be a leader here. And I haven't had that feeling from the start in a while."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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