This weekend was a tale of two games for the Atlanta Dream. The Dream's rout of the New York Liberty Friday, May 25, and the rout handed to them two days later by the Indiana Fever, may be good indicators of how the first half the season may fair without Erika de Souza (training with Brazil for the Olympics) and possibly Sancho Lyttle (she may participate with Spain in the EuroBasket qualifier). A postseason appearance will depend on the play of their replacements--Yelena Leuchanka and Courtney Paris.
The two losses against the Fever reminds of me of the loss they had against the Minnesota Lynx in game one of the WNBA Finals without Erika de Souza. The Fever, like the Lynx, were able to penetrate the paint when they needed, and then utilized jumpers and long-range shooting when the Dream would double down in the paint. When Souza is around she is such a force in the paint that the Dream are able to spread their defense without any consequences knowing she'll be able to pull down loads of defensive boards while fending off drives to the hole. The Fever took down 16 offensive rebounds in Sunday's game.
Then we look at Friday's game two days earlier against New York and see a Dream team that utterly dominated the paint on both offense and defense. New York had no answer for the Dream down low as Atlanta put up 46 points in the paint, forced 22 turnovers and took in 24 defensive rebounds.
Obviously we saw two polarized teams this weekend with the Fever and Liberty. The Fever look to be the team to beat in the East again, while the Liberty will be struggling to climb their way out of the basement. It is encouraging to see that the Dream can still handily beat the teams they're supposed to, but are these early matchups against the Fever a barometer of how we'll play against more competitive teams? This question largely hinges on whether Leuchanka and Paris can step up as adequate replacements.
Leuchanka looked good offensively in both games. The game against the Fever was particularly impressive as she was banging bodies with the tough defenders down low drawing a lot of fouls. In Friday and Sunday's game she put up 10 points in each game. On defense nobody on the team, let alone Leuchanka, had an answer for Tamika Catchings as she put up a double-double (25 points; 12 rebounds) against the Dream.
So far I like what I see from Leuchanka. She looks to be a scoring version of Alison Bales, last year's number two center. While there is no adequate replacement for Souza, Leuchanka's big body and hardnosed play looks to be the best alternative the Dream have right now.
Paris, while seeing limited action, looked decent against New York (5 rebounds), while overmatched against Indiana. Indiana blew past her Sunday evening as she was slow to get to the ball and stop opposing drives. She had the worst plus/minus stat on the team with a dismal -14 in only 11 minutes.
If Lyttle does leave, Paris is really going to need to step her game up as she'll either be starting or will be given more minutes off the bench. The Dream need her to develop the skills everyone saw at Oklahoma University that made her such a highly touted prospect only four years ago. Not only does the Dream's season depend on it, but it may be Paris's last legitimate shot to impress as a member of the WNBA; otherwise, I don't see her playing a significant role in the league after this season.
All in all, all the Dream have to do is stay within striking distance of fourth place in the East. As has been indicative of their runs the last three seasons, what seed the Dream get in the playoffs doesn't matter as the team at full capacity can run with anybody in the league. I would imagine that Indiana and the Connecticut Suns will pull away from the Dream in the standings this first half of the season, but the Dream should be able to keep pace with New York, the Washington Mystics and the Chicago Sky. Nothing will be a given this first half, but a good showing from Leuchanka and Paris will etherize the pain of not having Souza around.
As a resident of the southeast, Charles McGregor has been a fan of the Dream since their inception.