The Atlanta Dream are looking at a path to the playoffs

Despite losing 10 straight games earlier this year, the Dream are not yet mathematically eliminated and believe they could get into the postseason

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Monique Billings #25 and Chennedy Carter #3 of the Atlanta Dream hug after a game against the Indiana Fever on September 1, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Atlanta Dream hadn’t yet won like this, this season.

The first win of the season, 105-95 over Dallas, was close late until the Dream pulled away by making six free throws in the final minute.

The second win, 84-78 over New York, was a three-point game at the 1:25 mark of the fourth quarter.

The third win, 78-75 over Minnesota, was as close as it sounds from the score. Atlanta battled back in that one from a deficit that was as large as 14 points.

But on Tuesday night, in the Dream’s 102-90 win over the Fever, they were in command for the majority of the game. The game was tied after the first quarter, but Atlanta led at the half and after the third quarter — despite being outscored by Indiana, 26-25, in the third.

With a season-high 34 points in the fourth quarter, led by 10 points from Chennedy Carter and eight from Glory Johnson, the Dream kept pulling away and led by as many as 19 points in the last quarter of the game. The Fever tightened things up somewhat in the final minutes, but it was clear it wouldn’t be close to enough.

Atlanta came out firing, start to finish, and earned its most dominant win of the season.

After leading in the fourth quarter of their last game against Los Angeles before the Sparks pulled away late, it was clear the Dream came away with important lessons about closing out games. They didn’t make the same mistake again.

“[We needed to] open up the lead so it’s not close late,” Dream coach Nicki Collen said. “A couple times [against Los Angeles] we got up eight, then fouled and didn’t rebound. [Teaira] McCowan’s hard to keep off the glass. You got to work like heck to battle her on the boards. That was what was keeping them in the game. Second-chance points and McCowan around the rim. We separated. We kept putting downhill pressure on them in transition by setting good screens and by separating on our screens.”

“I know that we’re still figuring things out as we go, but there have been a couple times when we’ve been up on teams and we’ve let the lead go,” added Johnson. “There’s a lot of teams that are fourth-quarter teams and our strength wasn’t that. We weren’t as good at stopping people from making runs rather than making runs and sticking with it. I think this was a game that coach was challenging us to play the game completely out. Finish the game strong. It’s not just about how you start, it’s how you finish.”

The message from Johnson that it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish, can be applied to Atlanta’s season as a whole.

Despite a 10-game losing streak and winning just two of their first 13 games, the Dream are now 4-13 and have won two of their last four. It would be an overstatement to say they’re back in the playoff hunt, but they’re certainly not out of the picture.

Some things would have to break their way and other teams would have to lose, but it could happen. That would’ve sounded impossible a couple of weeks ago, after the largest loss in franchise history when Atlanta lost to the Storm, 100-63. But Atlanta is just three losses back of Dallas in the loss column.

Three of Atlanta’s five remaining games come against teams with losing records (Sun, Liberty, Mystics). The other two, against the Sky and Aces, are revenge game opportunities — Atlanta lost to each team by at least 25 points in their first matchups.

Getting Carter back from her ankle injury has been key, and players like Johnson and Courtney Williams have found more consistent footing in recent games. Betnijah Laney continues her campaign for the WNBA’s most improved player, and the pieces are all starting to come together.

“I know a lot of teams have had adversity here, but it’s hard to put it all together when you start short three players and you’re trying to build up to this point,” Collen said. “I’m proud of this group for continuing to battle and continuing to get better. We still have to get better defensively. We still have to defensive rebound and not foul, but I think we’re starting to understand where to get Courtney the ball. Chennedy knows where she can score. We’re starting to move the pieces around and do a pretty good job.”

With five games left in the season, Collen knows it would be a long shot for her team to make the playoffs, but she also knows it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Atlanta’s last five opponents are the Liberty, the Aces, the Sky, the Sun, and the Mystics, which isn’t an easy schedule, but it’s not a gauntlet, either.

As the pieces continue to come together and Carter heals even more from her ankle injury — Collen said Tuesday she had a bone chip in her ankle — it isn’t impossible to envision a scenario in which the Dream make the playoffs, or at the very least finish the season with a lot of momentum and confidence heading into 2021.

No one would’ve seen that coming in mid-August.

“I want somebody else to knock us out, not us to eliminate ourselves,” Collen said. “We talked about it tonight. We’re not mathematically eliminated. Even if there comes a point where we are, we want to take the momentum of this season in the next. I think that we may have to win every game, but I just firmly believe we’re capable.”