Commentary

Dream more than just McCoughtry

Originally Published: September 19, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Armintie HerringtonScott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesArmintie Herrington embraces her role of "doing whatever the Dream need."

No team in this year's WNBA playoffs relies more on one player being the superstar at both ends of the court than Atlanta does with Angel Mccoughtry.

She led the WNBA in scoring (21.5 ppg), and steals (89). She was sixth in average assists (4.4) and also added 5.3 rebounds per game.

Add in center Erika de Souza (12.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg), and the Dream had two very reliable veterans who've been consistent producers all season. But as much as those two have accomplished, the Dream also have needed their "background" cast in order to make the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

"They've brought a lot of energy that really supports what Angel and Erika have done," said coach Fred Williams, whose Dream host Washington in their Eastern Conference semifinal opener Thursday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). "We tried to implement a team that will give us good chemistry. They've been incredible workers; they come each and every day with the same type of mindset."

Before this season, Atlanta lost point guard Lindsey Harding to free agency. Another starter, forward Sancho Lyttle, has played just six games. First she missed time to be with her Spanish national team in the EuroBasket competition. Then in July, Lyttle suffered a fractured foot.

So the Dream have had to find replacements for two key players from last year, when they fell to Indiana in the first round of the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeJasmine Thomas
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesGuard Jasmine Thomas ranks second on the Dream in assists at 3.1 per game.

Beside McCoughtry and de Souza, guards Jasmine Thomas and Armintie Herrington and forward Le'coe Willingham have been the Dream's other main starters in 2013. Top contributors off the bench are guards Tiffany Hayes and Alex Bentley, who between them also have started 14 games.

"When I came to Atlanta, knowing that Angel was one of the great players in the league, I knew I'd have to know my role and do whatever it takes," said Herrington, who started her WNBA career in Chicago in 2007 before being traded to the Dream during the 2009 season. "I know I have to do the little things, and I accept that. It's still a great part to play -- even if doesn't consist of me scoring 20 points a game.

"I still need to be a leader on the floor, and give my best effort. … The most important thing is doing whatever the Dream needs. Right now, that's me distributing the ball, grabbing some rebounds, defending."

Herrington, who up until this season was still using her maiden name of Price, was the 2007 WNBA Rookie of the Year with the Sky. She had been a big scorer at Mississippi, where she compiled more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists and 400 steals in her college career.

She has never averaged double digits in scoring during her seven seasons in the WNBA; this year she's at 7.0 ppg. But, again, that's not her primary job.

"Armintie -- she's a triple-threat player," Williams said. "She can drive, plays tremendous defense, and she's a great leader on and off the floor. Every team needs that.

"She's especially effective in transition offense. And defensively, we put her on some of the best scorers in the league to try to lock them down."

Meanwhile, Thomas played her first two years with Washington, then was dealt before this season to Atlanta. The Duke graduate is from the greater Washington, D.C., area, so the trade meant leaving her home base.

"I was going into a system I was familiar playing against, and I thought I could find a role here," Thomas said of coming to Atlanta. "We've had some ups and downs as a team, but as far as getting comfortable and finding my place here, I've done that.

"It was a kind of frustrating first two seasons [in Washington] not going to the playoffs. This is a team that has known how to get to the postseason, and I'm happy to be a part of that."

[+] EnlargeLe'coe Willingham
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesLe'coe Willingham and Atlanta look for a fresh start after losing four straight games to close the regular season.

As it has turned out, now under coach Mike Thibault, the Mystics are in the playoffs, too, and are Thomas' first-round foe.

It's also interesting that Thomas essentially has "replaced" Harding three different times. First in 2007-08 at Duke as a freshman, after Harding finished her career there in '07. Then as a WNBA rookie in Washington in 2011, after Harding had requested to be traded from the Mystics to the Dream. And now in Atlanta, with Harding having gone to Los Angeles.

This season, Thomas has averaged 8.5 points and 3.1 assists. And Bentley, a rookie out of Penn State, has averaged 8.3 points and 2.8 assists. Even though Thomas is still such a young player herself, she has helped to mentor Bentley.

"We're both up-tempo players who can get into the paint, but Alex is a great shooter," Thomas said. "She can hit her 3-ball and is a great distributor."

Thomas walked into a situation in Washington in 2011 where the team went from first in the East the year before to finishing last. In the 2011 and '12 seasons, the Mystics won just 11 games combined and never sniffed the playoffs.

"I felt like there were so many changes going on in D.C. when I came into the league," Thomas said. "Not just with the coaches, but the team was different. We were a really, really young team, and we felt a lot of pressure.

"With Atlanta, they still had their core group of experienced people here. I was able to come in and adapt quickly, and Alex was able to come in as a rookie and play her game and learn and grow. And not necessarily feel like every mistake she might make would really hurt us."

Bentley, like Hayes the year before, was not a first-round draft pick. Bentley was the first selection of the second round this year, No. 13 overall. Hayes wasn't taken until the second pick of the second round of 2012.

Especially considering 2012 was a pretty weak draft overall, UConn grad Hayes dropping that far seemed bizarre then. It continues to look like a steal for the Dream.

"To me, Tiffany is our secret weapon," Herrington said. "She has grown from her first year to her second, with not only being a better offensive player but stronger defensively. Every game, we can count on her to give up her body, take a charge, whatever is needed. It's a joy to have her on the team."

Hayes dealt with a torn meniscus -- she had surgery in July -- that limited her to 23 games this season, but she has averaged 11.3 points. Bentley has been the Dream's top 3-point shooter with 28 treys.

"We thought Bentley would be a first-rounder, but she dropped to us in the second round," Williams said. "And with Tiffany, that was a no-brainer pick for us. We felt she had talent, drive, and energy, and would improve over the years. She has proven that for us throughout this year, and also last year."

So while all eyes naturally will be on McCoughtry during this series from Atlanta's standpoint, the contributions around her have made a difference, too. The Dream aren't coming into the playoffs on a high note, having lost their last four games of the regular season.

But they are not thinking about it from that standpoint.

"It is really something we have to remember: It's a clean slate in the playoffs," Herrington said. "We haven't been a good road team, but that's something we can still figure out. Now, it's about cleaning up things, staying in rhythm. But the fun is going to start in the playoffs, when it really counts."

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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