Dream dig in to return to Finals

INDIANAPOLIS -- Atlanta and Indiana played two very different kinds of games in their Eastern Conference finals series. That the Dream won both of them is a tribute to a team that was hard to figure out during the regular season, but once again is on a roll in the playoffs.

Atlanta is headed back to the WNBA Finals for the third time in four years, this trip courtesy of a sweep of the defending champion Fever.

"We just hung in there and really found a way to get it done defensively, and offensively to finish on a lot of transition baskets," Atlanta coach Fred Williams said of Sunday's 67-53 Dream victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

But he could have been referring to this entire season for Atlanta, not just Sunday's contest, in which Angel McCoughtry led the way with 27 points. The Dream had their ups and downs in 2013, no question. They started the regular season winning 10 of their first 11. But they ended it losing eight of 12, and four in a row.

They had the worst road record of any of the eight playoff teams, 4-13, and they've been without standout forward Sancho Lyttle for most of the season. They lost their point guard from last year, Lindsey Harding, to free agency.

They weren't picked by many to win the East; I didn't even pick them to make the playoffs. But behind McCoughtry -- who had an MVP-like season even if she wasn't voted to the WNBA's first team -- the Dream, as Williams said, found a way.

"This is an awesome feeling," said Williams, who was a Dream assistant in 2010 and '11, when Atlanta lost in the WNBA Finals to Seattle and Minnesota, respectively. Williams, who has been in Atlanta since the franchise's inaugural season in 2008, took over as the Dream's head coach in late August 2012 when Marynell Meadors was fired.

The Dream were kind of in dysfunction last season, even though they still made the playoffs, where they lost in the East semifinals to Indiana. This year, the Dream's chemistry was solid in a way it really wasn't in 2012, and that's part of what helped Atlanta get through the losses of Harding and Lyttle, plus the 11 games missed by guard Tiffany Hayes with a knee injury.

"We know when we put our best foot forward, no one can beat us but us," said guard Armintie Herrington, who had nine points and nine rebounds. "The games we've lost, we've gotten in our own way, and we've taken bad shots. But during the playoffs, we knew if we stuck together and ran the plays the way our coaches told us, we'd give ourselves a better shot."

The Dream have problem solved during this postseason. We mentioned the road woes of the regular season, but Atlanta has won both its road games in the playoffs. The first was a backs-to-the-wall Game 2 against Washington in the first round.

Then Sunday, the Dream shut down the Fever, holding them to their lowest point total of the season. Indiana knocked off top-seeded Chicago in the first round, but the No. 4 seed Fever succumbed to the quickness and defense of the No. 2 seed Dream.

"At this level, you have to have toughness on the boards," said Williams, whose Dream outrebounded the Fever 43-33. "We talked about rebounding and taking midrange shots."

In contrast to Thursday's 84-79 Dream victory when both teams shot well -- Atlanta 53.3 percent and Indiana 48.3 -- the nets weren't exactly scorched Sunday. The Dream shot 38.6 percent from the field; center Erika de Souza (12 points) was the only player other than McCoughtry who scored in double figures.

The Fever, meanwhile, were held to 28.1 percent from the field (18 of 64) and found themselves relying way too much on "old reliable," Tamika Catchings. She had 24 points and seven rebounds; no other Fever player scored in double figures.

"They really did a good job with their dribble-drive penetration," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. "We had trouble both games defending them. That's why when you look at points in the paint, they had 48, we had 20. It just took a toll on us, and we also got hurt on the boards with their quickness.

"Catchings was the only one [scoring] in double figures. We've got to have some more points out of [Karima] Christmas, and [Briann] January, and [Erlana Larkins] to have a chance against them."

Indeed, this year this matchup has favored the Dream, who went 5-1 against the Fever between the regular season and playoffs. Sunday's game was one of those where Indiana very clearly missed having a scorer as accomplished as Katie Douglas (back injury) and an experienced post player like Jessica Davenport (leg), who could have helped spell Larkins.

Early this season, the Fever lost seven games in a row. Indiana had to overcome a lot to get as far as it did. And while the Fever were disappointed Sunday, they were also proud.

"I will take with me the tremendous amount of character this team showed through adversity," Dunn said. "There was a time this season when we were 1-7, and for us to get this close to the Finals, I think is a tremendous accomplishment."

Catchings, who turned 34 in July and yet still performed at MVP level this season, added, "Of course, I would love to go to the Finals, but we played hard and gave everything we had. You have games where players don't shoot well.

"If a couple shoot better, or we get a few more rebounds, or a few more possessions where we don't turn the ball over, it's the difference in the game. But woulda, coulda, shoulda … didn't. And here we are."

Still, the WNBA title last year solidified the Fever's place in Indianapolis' sports landscape, as the franchise increased its season-ticket base and added sponsorship deals. But Indiana won't repeat as champion, something that hasn't been done in the WNBA since Los Angeles did it in 2001-02.

The Dream now get their third chance at the WNBA Finals, and second against Minnesota.

"We had players who've been there before," Williams said. "That's helped. It's hard to beat championship teams, and to beat them on their floor is very tough."