It would have been reasonable to assume prior to the start of the WNBA Finals that the best chance for the Atlanta Dream to steal a game in KeyArena was in Game One.
Perhaps, one might figure, they could have caught the Seattle Storm off guard and put them on their heels prior to heading back to Atlanta for Games Three and Four.
That's certainly one way to frame the Storm's 79-77 win over the Dream this afternoon -- by no stretch of the imagination did the Storm play their best in what was a hard fought game in front of 15, 084 enthusiastic fans in Seattle and the Dream managed to put the Storm's undefeated home record in jeopardy.
And just as she did against the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference Finals last week, Sue Bird managed to bail the Storm out.
With 2.6 seconds left, Bird hit a wide open 18 foot jumper off in an on-ball pick-and-roll situation to win the game. Although it certainly sounds familiar, it wasn't exactly the same type of play.
"This time it was different," said Bird, who finished with 14 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. "Actually it was in my hands [today], but the way they did the pick-and-roll, I was able to get a look and, to be honest, I got a similar look about, I don't know, 30, 45 seconds earlier and it didn't go in so maybe that helped."
But whether it was similar to past events doesn't matter quite as much for the Dream as what happened in this particular set of circumstances.
Common sense would tend to suggest that leaving Bird open for a mid-range pull-up jumper is not the best decision with the game on the line in the WNBA Finals, even if you hadn't seen her hit the shot last week -- it's among the shots she's most comfortable taking.
"As far as that shot goes, I was able to get a really good look and it was a pull-up, which is what I like," said Bird.
But launching into a critique of the Storm's defense on that play would be to ignore context.
Credit Bird for reading the Dream's defense on that play beautifully and sticking the shot. Credit Storm coach Brian Agler for deciding to put the ball in Bird's hands -- instead of playing her off the ball as they've done many times this season -- with the game on the line.
But also credit the Atlanta Dream for sticking to a game plan that had worked for the majority of the game, including on a shot a few plays earlier.
"They hadn't covered our pick and rolls for the majority of the second half," said Bird. "I had a feeling if I went off the pick and brought it back to the same side that I came from I would be able to get a good look. Like I said, I got virtually the same look 45, a minute earlier so I had an idea that I was going to get it."
Although the focal point of that moment and this game will certainly remain that shot from Bird, the fact that the Dream were sticking to a game plan that had been working is equally important. As a barometer for what to expect in this series is the fact that the Dream not only figured out how to hang with the Storm in KeyArena, but also demonstrated that they can actually impose their will on the game for long stretches even without guard Angel McCoughtry in the lineup.
As Bird alluded to, the Dream defenders were going under the screen throughout the game with quite a bit of success considering that they had themselves within striking distance at the end of the game. For long stretches of the game, they were effective sagging off the ball handler on pick and rolls and helping to defend Jackson and contest her shots -- outside of the third quarter when the Storm found Jackson for four of her eight three point shots, the Dream held her to three-for-ten shooting. Jackson did finish with 26 points and eight rebounds, but it wasn't her normally consistent performance.
"We couldn't help off the screener because they are good shooters, so we have to work around it," said Dream guard Iziane Castro-Marques who stepped up for 19 points when McCoughtry, who finished with 19 points and four rebounds, was absent. "The best way we could do it is go under and meet the player on the other side because if we help off the screen then the other person has a wide-open shot."
The way the Dream played the screens combined with the athleticism of their smaller and quicker lineups, wreaked havoc particularly in the second quarter when they quite badly outplayed the Storm in the final few minutes and held them to 31.6% shooting -- at one point, someone asked why the Storm looked so stagnant; they just didn't have very many places to go and started to uncharacteristically second-guess themselves. And although the defining moment of the fourth quarter is undoubtedly Bird's shot, the Dream also outplayed them then with their aggressive and energetic style forcing the Storm into costly turnovers.
"Yeah that's something we have to go back and look at," said Bird when asked about the turnovers. "They led the league in creating turnovers, so we know that. Doesn't mean it's going to be easy, because it isn't, but we know they like to do that and we saw that early and we saw that often. Every time we were able to establish ourselves and get a lead, we would have a couple of turnovers and they just went out and ran and they got a few points that way."
For their part, the Dream shot 50% in both the second and fourth quarters. So on the one hand, had Dream forward Angel McCoughtry not suffered a head injury that required three stitches and caused her to miss a long stretch of time, perhaps her presence would have swung the game in the Dream's favor in the fourth quarter or maybe she would have hit some of the jumpers she missed down the stretch. On the other hand, that the Dream were at their best in this game when McCoughtry was off the floor due to foul trouble or injury speaks volumes about their character, depth, and toughness to continue to follow through on their style of play.
"She is the one we go to, so everybody has to know what to do when she is not in," said Castro-Marques. "When one player is not doing her job, someone else has to bring it and we did that largely this season and we did that today too."
In other words, in a series that Storm assistant coach Nancy Darsch described as a battle of wills the Dream arguably managed to impose theirs with quite a bit of success and turn the game into a gritty transition game even at less than full strength.
This wasn't merely a fortuitous Storm lapse -- the Dream actually did everything they would have to do to win without the McCoughtry, who had averaged 28 points on 50% shooting to this point.