ATLANTA – The first five minutes of the Atlanta Dream’s 65-59 loss to the Connecticut Sun looked the same as the last few games.
Connecticut (5-1) jumped out to a 16-4 lead as the Dream (1-4) struggled to score, got beat on cuts and looked completely out of sorts on both ends of the floor.
But during a timeout, head coach Nicki Collen subbed out four of her five starters, going with a lineup of Alex Bentley, Tiffany Hayes, Brittney Sykes, Marie Gülich and Monique Billings.
The energy and intensity off the bench was striking because of the clear differences in both effort and chemistry between the starters.
The Bentley-Hayes-Sykes-Gülich-Billings combination coming in changed the trajectory of the game and we saw glimpses of the team everyone expected to show up this season.
“We just came together,” Bentley said. “It’s the talk in the locker room, it’s the talk in practice. Like, we all can bring more. We’re not giving each other energy, we’re not giving each other enough encouragement, we’re not giving each other enough pride on defense. We have to hold ourselves accountable. That’s been the talk of the locker room and it showed today.”
Ultimately, the Dream came out of the hole and Bentley tied the game at 57, but the team missed nine of its 10 shots after that. Atlanta shot 32 percent from the floor and 17 percent from three.
“While we don’t like the result, we never want to lose games, we battled and we looked like a Dream team, quite frankly,” Collen said during her post-game press conference. “The way we want to look.”
One of the moments that showed signs of the Dream fans are used to seeing came at the start of the second quarter. A combination of defense from Bentley and Hayes forced a Connecticut turnover. Then, on the next play, Bentley hit Hayes, who drove in for a reverse layup.
“That’s our identity, you know,” Bentley said. “Today was another good step for us and we just gotta continue pushing on. We have to get off to better starts and transfer what we do in practice to the game.”
Turning defense into both energy and points is what the Dream has been missing, their most notable difference from 2018. So, defense was the team’s focus during their practice following their loss to the Aces on Thursday.
Collen said the team on Friday competed in a competitive drill: Players stay on defense for three minutes with a goal of earning eight points through deflections or stops. If your team gives up an offensive rebound, you lose all your points and go back to zero.
“Sometimes it’s not about X’s and O’s,” Collen said. “Sometimes it’s about sitting down and saying, ‘I’m not gonna let you score on me. I’m not gonna let you grab an offensive rebound on me.’ Jonquel Jones dominated the offensive glass in the first half. It was a different story in the second half.”
Billings led the team in rebounds with ten – five offensive, five defensive – with only Jonquel Jones beating her on the offensive glass with six.
“Mo, that’s what she does,” Bentley said. “Mo is our hustler, she brings so much energy off the bench for us. She works hard and plays hard.”
Hayes and Sykes both finished with 14 points. Hayes also had seven rebounds and three assists – and played the most like herself this season following her ankle injury that came two days before the start of the season.
Gülich finished with seven points, three rebounds, assists and a block and Bentley added seven points, three rebounds and two assists.
Sykes, who has been the most consistent offensively this season, added five rebounds and two assists and came off the bench for the second time this season.
“Whoever touches that floor has to bring energy, it’s not just one person,” Sykes said. “Just knowing when you get on that floor, there’s no missed assignments and bringing that competitiveness that we played with last season. That’s just my job, doing what my teams needs me to do, because it’s not always scoring.”
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