ATLANTA — The Atlanta Dream are back in the WNBA playoffs, led by the coach of the year but missing the face of the franchise.
When the Dream face the Washington Mystics in a best-of-five semifinal series that begins Sunday in Atlanta, they'll be without star Angel McCoughtry. The 31-year-old went down late in the season with a knee injury.
"It's going to be tough. Washington is a great offensive team," Atlanta's Renee Montgomery said. "They have people who can go off for 30 on any given night. When you have explosive players like that, you really have to be on your toes."
The biggest threat, of course, is Elena Delle Donne, who led the Mystics in scoring at 20.7 points per game. In an interesting twist, she is facing the team she helped beat with one of the greatest comebacks in WNBA history.
Playing for Chicago during the 2014 playoffs, Delle Donne scored 17 of 34 points in the fourth quarter as the Sky overcame a 20-point deficit on the road, handing the Dream an 81-80 loss in the decisive game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Now, she's looking to lead another team past Atlanta.
"We've built a great culture here," said Delle Donne, who is in her second season with the Mystics. "Our trust with one another has grown this entire season."
McCoughtry, who was averaging 16.5 points a game, sustained her season-ending injury in an Aug. 7 victory over Las Vegas . Her return to the Dream this season after a one-year WNBA layoff was a big reason for Atlanta's turnaround from a dismal 12-22 mark in 2017.
Nicki Collen was another big part of the Dream's comeback .
The first-year coach took a while to find her groove, but Atlanta has been the WNBA's hottest team since the midway point of the season.
"I inherited a group of players who were hungry for success and have been easy to coach," said Collen, who was named Associated Press coach of the year in her first lead job at any level . "I thank them for their belief in a rookie head coach."
FILLING THE VOID
Tiffany Hayes leads Atlanta at 17.2 points per game, but five other players are averaging at least eight points to ease the sting of losing McCoughtry.
In the regular-season finale against Las Vegas, Elizabeth Williams paced the Dream with 20 points, while Montgomery and Jessica Breland added 16 points apiece. Alex Bentley scored 12 off the bench.
Despite losing McCoughtry, Atlanta has won 15 of its last 17 games after going just 8-9 over the first half of the season.
"It wasn't pretty in the beginning, but if there is one thing I am genuinely proud of is when we were working to figure it out, we never lost more than two games in a row," Collen said. "Our consistency at the defensive end gave us chances to win games, and when we found our offensive flow we truly became fun to watch."
The Mystics have also been on quite a roll, ripping off an eight-game winning streak before losing at Minnesota in their regular-season finale. They bounced back to rout the Los Angeles Sparks 98-64 in the second round of the playoffs .
Washington handed the Dream one of their two losses in the second half of the season, romping to an 86-71 victory in Atlanta on July 31.
But the Dream took the season series, winning 106-89 in Washington on July 11 and 80-77 at home four days later.
Both teams are seeking their first WNBA championship.
The Dream reached the finals in just their third season, but were swept in three straight games by Seattle in 2010. They also were swept by Minnesota in both the 2011 and 2013 finals.
Washington has never advanced past the semifinals in its 21-season existence. The Mystics are back in the final four for the second year in a row, after getting swept by eventual champion Minnesota in 2017.