After slow start WNBA's Dream emerge as contenders

ATLANTA (AP) — The Dream are looking like the team that reached the WNBA finals last season.After opening the season with a disappointing 3-9 record, the defending Eastern Conference champions have emerged as title contenders. Atlanta has won 10 of their last 13 games to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the third straight season.

"It's been a struggle," said Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta's All-Star forward and the league's second leading-scorer at nearly 21 points a game. "But we figure it would be more sweet if we win a championship because of our struggle. That would be the perfect to winning it."

Atlanta (18-14) is tied with New York for third place and just two games behind second-place Connecticut. And with two games left including one at home Tuesday against the Sun the Dream are confident and looking to possibly get homecourt advantage in the playoffs.

It's been a tale of two seasons.

Early season injuries to McCoughtry and Sancho Lyttle disrupted the team's chemistry. But now, the Dream say they are capable of another championship run after being swept by Seattle in last season's finals.

Washington Mystics coach and general manager Trudi Lacey wouldn't count them out.

"When they are healthy, they are a team that can be reckoned with," Lacey said.

But it took a while for Atlanta to jell because of the injuries and a new point guard.

McCoughtry sprained her left knee in training camp and saw limited time on the floor to start the season. The Dream also missed the frontcourt scoring presence of Lyttle, who did not play in the first 12 games six while playing on Spain's national team and another six to recover from a back injury.

Then there was the acquisition of Lindsey Harding.

The Dream had to get acclimated with their new point guard, known as an aggressive scorer who needed to get comfortable in Atlanta's offense. Harding was acquired in an offseason trade with Washington.

"We just had to stay patient," McCoughtry said. "It was hard to get our rhythm with the injuries. We had to learn who to play with Lindsey. We had to figure out how she played. We have our chemistry back."

Coach Marynell Meadors credited the Dream's turnaround to McCoughtry playing up to her potential. McCoughtry was named the Eastern Conference player of the month in July.

"It's no question that she is having an MVP season," Meadors said of McCoughtry. "She's playing her game within our offensive and defensive structure. She's really focused in on helping this team win games."

To help jump start Atlanta, Meadors also made a lineup change inserting Armintie Price into the starting lineup 19 games ago. The coach said Price's intensity on defense has been a major factor in the Dream's turnaround, calling the guard a "floor general" who uses her experience as an assistant women's coach for Ole Miss.

Since Price became a starter, the Dream posted a 14-5 record.

"It's like having another coach on the floor," Meadors said. "Her defensive ability, her leadership on the court and knowing when to do the right thing has really helped everybody. She has definitely been the spark plug. She keeps us organized on the court, which has been major during our turnaround."

Now, Atlanta believes it can make back to the WNBA finals. The Dream are playing like it's more than just a feeling: They have beaten East playoff contenders Connecticut and New York once, and have won all three contests against conference-leading Indiana.