- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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The Atlanta Dream were an afterthought to start this WNBA season. They were. There's no getting around it.
The Dream didn't get one of the "3 To See" like Phoenix or Chicago or Tulsa. They weren't coming off a championship like Indiana. They weren't missing their stars like Seattle. They weren't trying to come back from the dead like Washington, or experiencing the return of Bill Laimbeer in New York.
Nope, the Dream have merely been one of the best teams in the league over the past three seasons -- reaching the WNBA Finals two years in a row in 2010 and 2011 -- with one of their most dynamic players in Angel McCoughtry. But to use that well-used term -- flying under the radar -- well, that's Atlanta. A league-best 6-1 start has pretty much taken care of that. The WNBA is paying attention now.
"Honestly, I think we are used to it," Dream guard Armintie Herrington said. "I don't care. I don't expect people to count on us. We expect that from ourselves."
Atlanta head coach Fred Williams, not surprisingly, felt the same way.
"We can't change anybody's vote," he said. "We had to scramble down the stretch last year just to get into the playoffs. I'm sure people had questions about Angel and how that's going to evolve. But I think we've probably shut down a lot of the doubters about us. We are playing as a team right now and getting better. But we still have a lot of work to do."
At this point, many of the teams picked as favorites in the WNBA and in their respective conferences have work to do to catch up with the Dream's early chemistry and stellar play, particularly on the defensive end. Atlanta leads the league in team defense, allowing opponents 69.3 points a game and averaging 13.0 steals as a team.
"It's going well so far -- I've got no complaints," Herrington said. "I think we feel good and our energy is good. We came together pretty easily."
But looking around the league at teams like Phoenix, Indiana or Los Angeles, coming together can be anything but easy in the ready-set-go start to the WNBA season.
"A lot of it is preparing for what type of team you are going to be," Williams said. "We have good veteran leadership, players who have been in the system, and they've been able to teach some of the younger players what we are doing."
Atlanta has made its share of "adjustments" since the season began, playing with a new point guard platoon in Jasmine Thomas and rookie Alex Bentley (replacing Lindsey Harding, who signed as a free agent with Los Angeles in February), and now playing without standout forward Sancho Lyttle.
Lyttle, averaging 15.4 points and 9.0 rebounds over the first five games of the season, will miss six games with Atlanta to play for the Spanish national team. She is expected to return to the WNBA on July 9.
In the meantime, the Dream seem to be doing just fine behind McCoughtry, center Erika de Souza and a relentless defensive effort. And now, the perimeter shooting that Williams has wanted to see showed up on Sunday against Chicago, with Atlanta hitting a season-best seven 3-pointers.
"I'm not a stickler for 3s, but hopefully we can get it going," Williams said. "When we come down in half-court situations, we've got to have shooters."
McCoughtry, as usual, is setting the offensive pace, averaging 18.8 points a game.
But the drama that swirled around McCoughtry and the Dream last season seems to have dissipated. McCoughtry's scrapes with former coach Marynell Meadors last season ultimately cost Meadors her job last August.
The Dream are more settled a year later, and it shows.
Williams said McCoughtry is working on becoming more of a distributor.
"She's had a few more turnovers, but I think that's a function of her trying to get the ball to her teammates," Williams said. "But I think she's getting into a rhythm with her passing, and she's been doing a great job."
Herrington said Williams has created clear expectations for all of the Dream players, making it easy for everyone -- including the rookies -- to respond.
"We know each other and we know everybody's mood swings," Herrington said. "We've come so close so many years, now we are just trying to play ball and don't let the outside things come inside."
Last season, the Dream recovered from their roller-coaster ride in September, winning six of their final eight games to secure a playoff spot. Atlanta fell to Indiana in the first-round playoff series.
"Hopefully at the end of this season, we don't have to be scratching to get wins," Herrington said. "We need to stay in front and have people chasing us."
Overlooked in the preseason, Atlanta is off to a league-best 6-1 start -- and the rest of the WNBA is paying attention now.