Atlanta's coach, players size up this year's WNBA Finals

October 4, 2013 - 11:27pm
Angel McCoughtry waves to fans in Atlanta after accepting the WNBA scoring trophy. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

Angel McCoughtry waves to fans in Atlanta after accepting the WNBA scoring trophy. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

The Atlanta Dream have been there before -- to the WNBA Finals, that is -- three times in the past four seasons, in fact. That's an accomplishment only a handful of teams have ever managed -- the now-defunct Houston Comets who not only played in but won the first four championships in the league's history back-to-back-to-back-to-back; the New York Liberty, who made it to the championship round in three of the WNBA's first four seasons, but never won it all; and the Detroit Shock, who appeared in the Finals for three consecutive years between 2006 and 2008, taking it all in two of those three seasons. But the young Dream team (the franchise has been in existence for only six years, making their repeat Finals appearances all the more remarkable) are still grappling with what it will take to get over the hump and bring home the hardware.

Earlier this week, head coach Fred Williams and All-Star Dream forward Angel McCoughtry, the league's leading scorer this season, took time out from their preparations to join in a national media teleconference, featuring a wide-ranging discussion that covered topics from the Dream's hunger for that first championship ring, to their scout on the upcoming Finals matchups to the the effect their winning ways have had on the growth of their fanbase. Today, a little more than 24 hours before tip off in this year's rematch of the high-scoring, rollicking 2011 Finals series that saw the Dream swept by Minnesota in three games, Armintie Herrington and Jasmine Thomas joined the conversation before heading off to their final full practice. Here's how the Dream's coach and key players sized up this year's championship contest.

Q:  Coach [Williams], how important has winning been to helping you develop the fan base and having the fan base grow?  Also down there in Atlanta, the Hawks haven't won any championships.  Have you been able to transcend and [are you] actually starting to see some NBA fans starting to come over and become better fans of your team?

COACH WILLIAMS:  Yes.  I think overall, not only from the NBA side, but from the baseball side and football side, people [are] coming in and really supporting the ladies here in Atlanta.  We have seen a different face of the crowd and community come out and support us.

Q:  So basically, winning in the WNBA has been able to bring in more fans  in Atlanta, because people are basically sports fans?

COACH WILLIAMS: Yeah, they're just sports fans, period. I think pretty much in the summer, with us being really the "new ladies on the block" here in this town, it takes about six to 10 years to really establish a really solid fan base all the way around. 

Q: Coach, can you talk a little about the roller-coaster season you guys have had? You started off really hot, and then hit a slump and then sort of hit your way again in the playoffs.

COACH WILLIAMS: Well, I think a lot of it has been due to injuries earlier. For one, Sancho Lyttle going out for us, and then we had Tiffany Hayes, at one point, went out for a few games. And then, you know, hitting a long road streak there in July tested us a lot, going on the West Coast and getting kind of beat up some. But I thought all in all, we were able to maintain our second-place ... in our division and to gain home-court advantage for us on the East. And down the stretch, I thought we just wanted to get into postseason play, where ... we kind of stepped up after that first Washington loss.

Q: Do feel that the team was overlooked this year? 

COACH WILLIAMS: A lot of people did not have it in the books, us being here. That gave us inspiration and motivation. We needed to weather the storm and told the ladies we can get there. We can show a lot of doubters that we are for real and we can do this.

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: We’re always overlooked every year, but we would rather have it that way, so we can go ahead and get back to the Finals.

ARMINTIE HERRINGTON: Well, that is every year. Every year we play for the Dream. We never got the respect we deserve. And, I can care less. We know the style we play. We know the players we have. We always get the credit due to us in the end. We just go out there and play the game.

Q: Going back to the roller coaster question: The last four games of the regular season and then that first [playoff] game against Washington, it wasn't a great effort.  What changed mentally for you all that you just kind of turned things around so quickly?

COACH WILLIAMS:  I think a lot of it is film and then just getting after it defensively. And still, take the selected shots we had from the perimeter.  We average about 72 to 75 attempts a game.  We shot 28 percent in that first game.  There's no way we [could] do that for the rest of our series against Washington. I think we got a lot better after that; it seemed to wake us up a little bit.

Q:  Fewer perimeter shots?

COACH WILLIAMS:  Yeah, we were able to get more perimeter shots outside, and then that really opened up more points in the paint for us.

Q: Highs and lows of the season?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY:  Every season is going to have highs and lows. It’s just how you react to the adversity. This team just kept fighting. Even when we kept losing and people were doubting us, we just kept fighting and believing in ourselves. That’s how we got here to this point now.

Q:  Coach, could you please describe how difficult it is to prepare for a team with as many different offensive threats as Minnesota presents and describe your view of the matchups [for this series]?

COACH WILLIAMS:  It's very difficult.  We're looking at some Olympians on that team who get a lot of power from shooting the outside jumper.  They're pretty long at the post and ring area where they can step out and pull your post away from the basket.

So we've got a lot of work to do and try to figure things out.  I know, when we played them here the last time down, they were kind of one player short here.  We just got to really up-tempo the game some and just try to take advantage of the open court space.

Q:  And how can you beat Minnesota on their home court?

COACH WILLIAMS: Come out and play some solid basketball. Start with defense. Come out of the locker room with the mindset that you can compete and finish out some games.

ARMINTIE HERRINGTON: I think we just need to be consistent. Anytime you let up they can capitalize on your mistakes. We have to stay aggressive on both ends of the court, and have good defense and rebound.

Q: Any changes on playing Minnesota after splitting the regular-season series?

JASMINE THOMAS: I’m sure. We’ve watched film and have seen different things they are doing. For us, there will be some adjustments. For us, when we play defense and we play our game, that’s all we need to do.

Q: Two questions: One, is there anything singly ... that surprised you as you made your playoff run? And two, both teams have had about the same amount of rest -- you both played last Sunday and are playing this Sunday. Is there an advantage or disadvantage [to] either one?

COACH WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's, advantage-wise, both teams played the same days and we finished at the same time. I think it's just home-court advantage [for Minnesota] right now. For us, we've had some momentum going, playing on the road and playing at home. So we're just going to have to take that one game at a time.

[Regarding anything that surprised us], I just thought that our shooting got a little bit better after our first game, and that not really one thing was a surprise. I thought we stepped up under a lot of pressure, extreme pressure, on the road and that showed [what you need to win] the Eastern Conference championship.

Q: What's thedifference between a three-game and five-game [playoff] series?

JASMINE THOMAS: It’s just longer. Our first three-game series went to three games, so that was a little taste of the longer series. If it goes to five games, that’s just a way to extend the season, but we are happy to be playing as long as we can.

Q: [Coach], talk about Angel McCoughtry and her impact [on] the team.

COACH WILLIAMS: She has been a great leader for us. She had been through a lot in the past, on and off the floor. Her rebounds, steals, leadership with scoring, and hitting big shots. And she likes passing. She has really developed that this year. Her leadership has been tremendous. That goes along with Armintie Herrington and Tiffany Hayes being cast members, too.

Q: Angel, ... when you look at your career at [University of Louisville], how did you actually end up there, and what do you feel like you're using from your experience there as you succeed in the way you are in the WNBA?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: How I ended up in Louisiville, it was just one of them things that just wound up happening, one of those spur of the moment things. It wound up being one of the best decisions of my career. What I've kept over, it's the same thing.... When I was in Louisville, it's the same thing like we're in now. Nobody expected us to be we in the same position we're in now -- we're the underdog -- so we just fought our way to the top. And that's exactly what the Atlanta Dream has done.

Q: Coach Walz, what's he mean, do you feel like, in your career?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: He's meant a lot to my career. He's the one who kind of, you know, helped me become a woman in this world on and off the basketball court. I really think that Coach Walz has proved himself over and over, that he's one of the best coaches out there. This year, particularly, [taking the team] back to the national championship game. So he's going to mean a lot to my career, and we still maintain a great relationship to this day.

Q:  [Angel], you basically accomplished everything a player can accomplish except for the WNBA Championship.  This is your third shot.  Can you talk about your mindset going in and what it would mean for you to finally get this, I guess, the last thing [left unaccomplished] in your career?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY:  It would mean a lot.  The mindset going in ‑‑ the mindset going in [is] just making sure we just have ‑‑ just a go‑getter mentality.  Trying to go in attack mode. No fear. Go in more confidently.

Q: How do you take your game to another level now?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: Just got to play. We’re just here to play. It’s going to be tough in their gym, but we just got to stay focused on each other and reaching our goals. I have to take my game to another level. Just mentally just being in the zone, being in that place, just being extra focused.

Q:  Coach, can you talk about how tight‑knit, just kind of from a chemistry and off‑the‑court standpoint, your team is and how ‑‑ is that just kind of a WNBA thing?  I know, as we look at the Lynx here in Minnesota, we see, at least on the outside, a group that really genuinely enjoys being around each other.  And how important is that for you guys [in Atlanta] and for the WNBA, do you think?

COACH WILLIAMS:  I think that's very important.  You know, to get to the next level of the playoffs and to the championship level, you definitely have to have the team chemistry and being together.  That's something that's formulated through us all the way from training camp through the midseason, you know, the wins, the losses.

These young ladies really thrive and really love each other a lot, to where they can go out and have dinner and talk about the game and just have fun.  I like players to go out and have fun and work hard and do the right things.

Q: Coach Williams, I wondered if you could sort of address ...  how much Erika [de Souza] has sort of improved over her time in the league.  She came into the league as a very young player.  If you could maybe talk about where she is right now in her game.

COACH WILLIAMS: I think Erika has really improved over the years in her development.  In her time with us at the Atlanta Dream, she established herself as an All‑Star player.  This has been one of her outstanding years, I think, in her career. For her to really commit to be with us through the All‑Star, through the playoffs, shows the extent of where she believes in the Dream, believes in Atlanta, and believes in this league.

So I think she's just going to get better and better.  I don't think she's really reached her peak in her career yet.  We're just going to continue to work with her and make her a better player.

Q: Coach, can you talk a little bit about the growth of Armintie Herrington's game this season from the beginning to the end and how you think that she'll be effective in this series.

COACH WILLIAMS:  Well, I think she's been a very consistent veteran throughout this whole ‑‑ her whole career.  I think she's been ... a role player at some points.  She's been a starter for us over the years.  And it's going to be really important for her to really hit the boards like she's been doing and then also hit a few of those outside jumpers for us.

Q:  And what about defensively?  Who do you think that she'll be able to create the most trouble for on the Lynx?

COACH WILLIAMS:  Well, she'll get some help somewhere, but if you try to match her up with [Maya] Moore or Seimone [Augustus] or somewhere in that area, you can't guard those players one‑on‑one.  So, hopefully, we'll get her some help when she's defending one of those players.

Q: What does it feel like to be back in the Finals?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: It feels good to be back. We worked hard this season. It was tough with the ups and downs. Like every year, we are not expected to be here, so it’s good to prove people wrong, once again.

ARMINTIE HERRINGTON: I think we can make run to the Finals every year. That’s the type of core group we have. And now with the rookies we have, I think we are a team that’s strong inside and out. We play a fast game. We know what it takes to get here. We just need to win a ring now. 

Q: [Jasmine, for you, this is your first Finals series? How does it feel?]

JASMINE THOMAS:  I’m excited. I feel like this is another step in the playoffs, so the way we’ve been preparing as a team has helped to make us feel comfortable. We’ll be ready to go.

Q: Mentality for tomorrow’s game?

JASMINE THOMAS: We’re just excited. We’ve changed our pace coming into playoffs. We’ve really been playing good basketball, playing together as a team, so we’re excited to just continue that and see where it takes us.

Q: Are you nervous?

JASMINE THOMAS: There are always nerves. I have the same nerves that I have before every game and usually it takes one mistake or one thing positive to get them to go.

Q: What have you learned from the previous trips to the Finals that you all can apply this time that might get you over the hump and help you win that first championship?

COACH WILLIAMS: Angel, I'll let you have that one.

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: Well, I mean, you learn from your failures. You know what it feels like to not win it, and we really want to get over the hump this year and bring the championship home to Atlanta. But at least we know what it takes to get there. We know what the atmosphere feels like. We know the games are really tough, especially when you're playing in Minnesota the first [two] games. It's going to take more focus. Just got to try to figure out a way to get over the hump. That's about it.

Q: As a repeat of 2011, what do you have to do to change the outcome?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: We remember them from 2011. It was tough. They got us 3-0. This is a different team, different coach, just a different look. We feel very confident coming in.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Game One of the 2013 WNBA Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream tips off Sunday, October 6, at the Target Center in Minneapolis at 8:30 p.m. EDT, 7:30 p.m. local time. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.