I attended a great professional basketball game on Tuesday night. It was the deciding Game 3 of the WNBA opening round, conference semifinal match up between the Eastern Conference's #1 seed, Atlanta Dream versus the #4 seeded Chicago Sky in Atlanta's Philips Arena.
The game included a classic individual match up pitting the Dream's leading scorer and two-time WNBA scoring champion, Angel McCoughtry, against last year's WNBA rookie of the year, Elena Delle Donne.
I expected a great game, but I did not expect a greater lesson in leadership in the Sky's 81-80 comeback victory over Atlanta to win their Eastern Conference semifinal series 2-1. The Dream had led by as many as 20 points and were up by 17 with just over 8 minutes left, at home, no less.
What all the news wire cover stories did not mention was the importance of an incident that, in hindsight, was the real turning point. Both stars struggled during the first half. As a team, Atlanta shot the ball well in the first quarter. Atlanta kept pouring it on in the second quarter and led by as many as 20 when Erika deSouza drove to the basket to give Atlanta a 44-24 lead with 5:46 left. The Dream was shooting 60% from the field and playing great team basketball.
However, lost in the Dream's big lead and forgotten by halftime, was an all too typical Angel McCoughtry meltdown near the end of the half. Although McCoughtry had reportedly been displaying considerably more maturity this season, this was crunch time with playoff survival and advancement hanging in the balance. With 3:20 left in the first half, McCoughtry was fouled by the Sky's Tamara Young, on a shot toward the basket.
During the subsequent timeout, the entire Dream team surrounded McCoughtry to keep her cool and relaxed. Dream teammate DeSouza even resorted to rubbing McCoughtry's ears to keep her from flaring up again. Seemingly, it worked. Despite the break in momentum, the Dream still led 72-55. It seemed that the Dream had recovered.
Delle Donne Sparks The Rally
Ever tenacious, though, Chicago scored seven straight points, including a three-point play from Delle Donne, to cut the margin to 10 points with 7:02 remaining. Sensing blood and following Delle Donne's lead, Chicago continued to attack and take advantage of Atlanta's increasingly poor shooting and passing. Still rallying, the Sky scored six straight points to complete a 14-2 run and trim the deficit even more to 74-69 with 4:27 left.
"We just got away from what we were doing so well," Dream coach Michael Cooper said. "We took some quick shots and bad shots and let it kind of get away from us." Without their poise nor the leadership of Angel McCoughtry, the Dream was in jeopardy of throwing away a clearly winnable game.
It became clear that McCoughtry's tantrum had led to the entire Dream losing their team poise and focus. With the Dream looking for leadership, McCoughtry wasn't the same player who scored 39 points in the second game of the series in Chicago. On Tuesday night in Atlanta, she only shot 5-for-18 from the field and scored 17 points. Most tellingly, McCoughtry made one of eight shots in the cruicial fourth quarter.
"I think we were playing to win," Dream player Sancho Lyttle said. "We just stopped executing, and all of a sudden it was a one-point lead and we wondered, 'How did that happen?'"
What happened was that the Dream's star player failed to accept the leadership challenge. She failed to keep her cool and deal with adversity. She failed to assert her will and lead the team to victory.
"We put the ball in her hands, and she made the plays," Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said.
"In the fourth quarter, they put the ball in my hands. The team trusted me," Delle Donne said.
The Comparison and the Future
By contrast, following a number of questionably poor shots after her meltdown, Dream forward Angel McCoughtry's attempt at a game-winning jumper from the right side bounced on the rim several times before falling away as the horn sounded.
"It was a resilient effort by my team," Chatman said. "They stayed the course, and when it got late, my star player stepped up." The role model for that resilience was Delle Donne. The difference was one point but the real difference was leadership. The Sky had it, the Dream didn't.
The Sky moves on and the Dream looks ahead after another season of disappointment. Can Angel McCoughtry find maturity and develop the leadership that she and the Dream so desperately need? Will Elena Delle Donne lead this #4 seed to a championship through grit and resilience?
Excerpts from the Chicago Tribune and ESPN.go.com (August 27, 2014).