After a lackluster slide into the postseason, the Atlanta Dream altered their starting lineup to be "smaller and quicker." And that worked well in the first round against Washington. However, it was being "bigger and stronger" that really made a difference for the Dream on Sunday.
Atlanta, the No. 4 seed and in just the franchise's third season of existence, made a huge step toward the WNBA finals by beating host New York 81-75 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
If the Seattle Storm, who earlier Sunday won the Western Conference finals against Phoenix, got to see any of the Dream-Liberty game there might have been just a few gulps. Because the Dream have the kind of inside depth that could cause problems for Storm.
Of course, before that matchup could happen, the Dream must return to Atlanta and try to close out the East series at 7:30 p.m. ET Tuesday. If 6-foot-4 Sancho Lyttle, 6-5 Erika de Souza, 6-7 Alison Bales and 6-5 Yelena Leuchanka contribute what they did Sunday -- a combined 36 points and 28 rebounds -- it's going to be tough for the Liberty to force a Game 3 back in New York.
Especially if injured Liberty post player Janel McCarville, who has missed the past two games, is unable to return to action. The sprained ankle McCarville suffered before Game 3 of the first-round series with Indiana is now looming as a critical blow to the Liberty's hope of making their first WNBA finals appearance since 2002.
Of course, Atlanta was still six years away from even getting a WNBA franchise then. And after a 4-30 inaugural season in 2008, the Dream were in a different galaxy from even playoff contention.
But the 2009 college draft was very beneficial to Atlanta. First-round pick Angel McCoughtry, the No. 1 selection overall, and second-round pick Shalee Lehning both became rookie starters who helped the Dream make the postseason last year. Lehning, however, was hurt in the regular-season finale, had to have shoulder surgery and missed the playoffs, in which Atlanta was swept by Detroit.
Still, the turnaround from 4-30 to 18-16 was profound, and set the stage for a strong 2010 season in which most of the pieces returned for the Dream. A couple, however, didn't.
Atlanta traded post player Michelle Snow to San Antonio in March. But it added Bales, who had not played in the WNBA in 2009. Then, just a few days into the season, on May 19, Atlanta was forced to waive forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who had requested a trade and didn't report to the Dream.
The same day Atlanta parted with Holdsclaw, it signed Leuchanka, who played two years collegiately at West Virginia and then competed in just a handful of WNBA games in now-defunct Charlotte in 2006 and Washington in 2007.
Bales and Leuchanka joined the Dream's starting duo of Lyttle, a prize from Houston's dispersal draft following the 2008 season, and de Souza, who came to Atlanta before that season after the Dream took her from Connecticut in the expansion draft.
De Souza missed most of the 2008 season because of a fractured leg, which summed up the kind of first year it was for the Dream. Yet here she and Atlanta are, just two years later, a game away from the WNBA finals.
Sunday, all nine Dream players who got into the game contributed -- which was not the case for the nine who played for the Liberty. Both teams had a player out with an ankle injury, but Kelly Miller's absence did not affect the Dream much, while McCarville's absence did impact the Liberty.
The 6-2 McCarville is averaging 8.8 points and 5.9 rebounds this season. Furthermore, her last game against Indiana -- in which she had eight points and 11 boards -- was a good example of how much she might have contributed against the Dream's front line.
Plenette Pierson, who replaced McCarville in the starting lineup, did her part Sunday with 18 points and five rebounds. But Kia Vaughn, who was so important in Game 3 against the Fever, had a quiet game against the Dream with four points and two rebounds.
Even quieter was Liberty guard Essence Carson, who was a huge factor off the bench in the first-round series. But Sunday, she missed all four of her shots from the field and finished with no points or rebounds.
All the key numbers went the Dream's way. They won the battle of the boards 40-28. They had just eight turnovers to New York's 15. And especially to the Liberty's displeasure, Atlanta was 24-of-31 from the foul line. By contrast, New York was 12-of-14.
Also, Atlanta's bench had 26 points and 16 rebounds to New York's four and three. It's important to point out, though, that two of the Dream's "bench" players Sunday, de Souza and Lehning, started all through the regular season.
They were replaced as starters in the playoffs by guards Armintie Price and Coco Miller, a shakeup move coach Marynell Meadors made after the Dream lost six of its last seven regular-season games. Price and Miller did fine Sunday, too, combining for 10 points, six assists and five rebounds.
And what of the two biggest stars, New York's Cappie Pondexter and Atlanta's McCoughtry? They both came through, but essentially canceled each other out, as Pondexter scored 24 points and McCoughtry 21.
Thus, it came down to the supporting casts. Edge to Atlanta. All this season when they've been at their best, in fact, the Dream have effectively utilized their whole team. Now, that has them one step closer to playing for a WNBA championship.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.