It was a few minutes into the Dream’s practice on Tuesday, and coach Nicki Collen didn’t like what she was seeing. She thought the effort level in the defensive drill was lacking — and she made that known.
Collen isn’t lowering her expectations just because her team is eliminated from playoff contention. And the Dream — on a two-game win streak for the first time since July — are stepping up to the task.
“I think everybody in this gym has pride,” Collen said. “I don’t think that, ultimately, this season is going to end the way we wanted it to, but we have a chance to at least write the last few games and finish how we want to finish this season and play like the team we thought we could be when the season started.”
The Dream have now led going into the fourth quarter in 11 of their last 15 games. In their last two games, those fourth-quarter leads have turned into wins.
“In these games, we’ve been finding a way to win,” said Tiffany Hayes. “We’ve got nothing to lose, so I think we’re playing with that in our heads.”
Collen often says that losing can be contagious in the same way that winning can. But once you break a streak, it becomes easier to see how you can win the next game, and then the next, and then the next.
Against New York last Friday, the Dream trailed with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Monique Billings’ two free throws made it a one-point game, and a layup from Renee Montgomery put the Dream in the lead for good.
Two nights later, when the Dream were in Dallas, the Wings evened the score with two minutes left. Having just pulled off a fourth-quarter comeback, the Dream knew they could still come out on top.
“I think when you find a way to grind out one and win, that leads to the next game and finding a way to grind one out and win,” Collen said. “Then you turn it. All of a sudden, ‘Okay we’ve been here, and we got down three, but it’s okay because it’s a two possession game and we’ll get it back.’ It’s just continuing to do the little things right and believing in the moment that you have what it takes to make the play.”
Now, as the Dream move into the final few games of their schedule, they’re looking forward to the opportunity to play spoiler for the few teams that are still jockeying for playoff contention. Dallas and New York are in the hunt, and Phoenix may still be looking for a playoff spot when they come to Atlanta on Thursday night.
“We have the ability to be giant killers every night,” Collen said. “Everybody else that we’re playing against that is playing for something, you have an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, not tonight,’ so I think that’s important as well.”
Hayes, in particular, enjoys crashing the parties of other teams.
“We’ve got nothing to lose, so why not go crash some other parties?” Hayes said. “If we can’t make it, then let’s make it so other people can’t make it. That’s what’s been our thing. We’re crashing parties and we’re spoiling other people’s parties. We don’t like that we’re not in the playoffs, but if we have to be (out), I think that’s definitely gonna be our M.O. is (being) spoilers.”
The spoiler mentality goes back to what Collen feels is the genesis of this win streak: pride. No one wants to sit back and watch while another team celebrates on their home floor. And if the Dream have anything to say about it, no one will be clinching the playoffs on their floor the rest of the way.