Last Friday night, the Atlanta Dream came in and shocked the Seattle Storm with a 77-66 victory in Seattle. Surprisingly, Atlanta has really struggled this season. The Dream entered last Friday’s game with the worst record in the WNBA at 2-9, a stark contrast to last season where they had the second best record in the entire league (only behind Seattle) and finished the season 23-11. The Dream reached the WNBA semi-finals and lost to a very good Washington Mystics team in the 5th and deciding game of the series. Atlanta was just one win away from their fourth trip to the WNBA Finals since becoming a franchise in 2008.
Their new head coach last season, Nicki Collen, would go on to win Coach of the Year as she led her team to an 11 game improvement from the 2017 season. Going from 10th place to 2nd best was an impressive one year turnaround.
Guard Tiffany Hayes took her game to the next level averaging 17.2 points per game and was named to the 2018 All-WNBA First-Team. She also finished 6th in MVP voting.
So with all this momentum, I’ve been stunned at how far they’ve fallen off in 2019. I wanted to take some time to speak with Coach Nicki Collen about her team’s struggles this season and where they go from here. Below is my interview with Coach Collen after the Dream defeated the Storm 77-66.
Jeff Brown: What can this win do for you guys and what are some short term goals to build off of?
Nicki Collen: We just want to keep getting better. We know it’s a process. Winning is more fun than losing. As long as we’re learning from what we did well, like 20 assists on 29 baskets. We did good job of when we touch the paint, dropping passes off. We didn’t finish in the lane as much as we need to, to consistently win games. But we know when we guard people hard and make it difficult for other teams, we have enough offense to be really, really competitive.
JB: The Storm got off to an 11-0 run but then you guys went on a 26-4 run, how did you pull that off?
NC: We guarded them. We screened better and we touched the paint. Everything’s predicated on getting the ball inside. Even if we don’t score in the paint, we shoot the three better when we get the ball in the paint first. I thought we were very balanced. We got great play from our bench today. (Alex) Bentley really ramps up the pace when she’s in. And she also did a great job with ball pressure which helps set the defense.
JB: Last season you guys were the 2nd best team in the league, got to the semi-finals and almost reached the WNBA Finals, what has been the biggest difference this season? Until this game, it’s really been a struggle.
NC: Look at our statistics. We haven’t put the ball in the basket. We’ve missed more unguarded shots than any other team in the league. We’re getting open shots, but we’re just not knocking them down. When you shoot 32% in a professional league, your defense can only carry you so far. When you score 58 points it’s hard to win games. It’s just the nature of this league, it’s just too good. They just need to see the ball go through the basket.
We’ve had a few games in a row where we were just awful. But ever since then, we’ve really competed. But sometimes we just haven’t put the ball in the basket. Sometimes all it takes is to have a game where multiple people make shots and then it becomes contagious. Then everyone feels really good about the next opportunity.
JB: What’s the best advice to give your team during the rough start to keep them motivated?
NC: It sounds simple, but we use it a lot, ‘Trust the Process’. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror. I know we’ve gotten good shots but I have to figure out how do we get even better shots. What do I have to do scheme wise to create more opportunities for them, whether that’s trapping or different defensive schemes to lift you and get stops. And each of these guys have to look in the mirror and figure out why they are missing, how are they missing, giving enough attention to detail in terms of their scout. Are they doing enough for their team? We have to look inside ourselves and believes that as long as we keep the process going, we keep getting better and we keep believing.
I’m not suggesting it’s easy to finish a season 15-2, but we’ve done it. Last year we finished 15-2 to finish out the regular season and a lot of the same players are in this locker room. They know when you get things going in the right direction. This game is very, very mental.
Look at these guys (the Seattle Storm), they battle like maniacs. With all the injuries that Seattle has had this season, it’s been really, really impressive to see them compete. And I think a lot of that is just the championship culture. That they know how to win, they’ve done it and so it’s next man up. And for us we just need to keep getting good contributions from our bench and for our players to get good shots.
JB: Lastly, Tiffany Hayes had a fantastic game with 21 points but her scoring is down quite a bit this season. Do you think she’s pressing too much or what do you want to see different from her moving forward?
NC: I think she’s been pressing of course. She wants to help this team and she wants to win. She’s the ultimate competitor. She’s going to battle for her teammates. She picked up a Technical (Foul) tonight because she was battling for her teammates. Right or wrong, it wasn’t her, it was for her teammate.
I think at times she has settled. The thing about Hayes is she’s so slippery and has a great ability to get in the lane but when the lane is congested because no one has been able to make a shot. Then the lane just continues to get more and more congested. She needs her teammates to make shots, to create space, so that she can get in there, so that she can do what she’s so special at. She’s so unselfish, occasionally she takes tough shots but she’s not unwilling to drive it to the rim and find a pass to a shooter in the opposite corner.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the Atlanta Dream will do throughout the rest of the season. After starting the season 2-9 they are currently 2-1 in their last three games with their one loss being by just two points against the Phoenix Mercury. With roughly 20 games left in the WNBA regular season, the Dream are only 2.5 games out of a playoff spot right now and have plenty of time to right their ship before season’s end.
Thanks again to the Atlanta Dream PR and Coach Nicki Collen for taking the time to speak with Cascadia Sports Network last week.