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2011 WNBA Playoffs: Atlanta Dream Eye Return Trip To The Finals

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The Atlanta Dream begin their playoff series against the Connecticut Sun on Friday night.   (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Atlanta Dream begin their playoff series against the Connecticut Sun on Friday night. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Atlanta Dream came into the season with a lot of hype and rightfully so. After all they were coming off of the first trip to the WNBA Finals in franchise history and added All-Star point guard Lindsey Harding to the lineup during the offseason. Atlanta seemed like a sure fire bet to once again represent the Eastern Conference in the WNBA Finals.

Then Angel McCoughtry suffered a knee injury in training camp while other key players also suffered nagging injuries. Sancho Lyttle left the team for a six game stretch to play in the Eurobasket tournament only to return and set out more games with a back injury. With the lineup in a constant state of flux, Lindsey Harding was slow to gel with her teammates. The result was a 3-9 start for the Atlanta Dream and what appeared to be a lost season.

Just when things appeared to be the bleakest, the team came together and turned things around. The result was a remarkable 17-5 finish to the season behind an MVP type performance from Angel McCoughtry. Along the way the injury bug continued to bite as back up point guard Shalee Lehning went down with a torn ACL, and center Erika De Souza missed a couple of games with an ankle injury, but once the team hit its stride it never slowed down.

Atlanta finished the season with a franchise record 20 win season and moved into third place in the Eastern Conference on the final day of the regular season. They will begin their quest to return to the NBA Finals on Friday against the No. 2 seeded Connecticut Sun whom they split four games with during the regular season.

The series will be a showcase of former No. 1 picks in Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry and Connecticut's Tina Charles. McCoughtry finished the season just percentage points behind Diana Taurasi for the league's scoring title at 20.6 points per game and was NBA Player of the Week four different times. Charles brings a 17.6 points per game average and is the league's leading rebounder at 11.0 per game.

While McCoughtry is the focal point of the Atlanta attack, enough can't be said of the contributions of her supporting cast. Armintie Price stepped into a starting position for an ineffective Iziane Castro Marques and never relinquished it. Erika De Souza and Allison Bales provided size at the center position but the Dream really took off once Sancho Lyttle regained her form. Lindsey Harding was often overlooked due to McCoughtry's monster season but quietly played her best basketball coming down the stretch.

The Eastern Playoff picture appears to be wide open with any of the teams seemingly capable of advancing to the Finals. Full Court Press writer Clay Kallam gives a reason that each playoff bound team can win and can't win in this years playoffs. He writes that the Dream can't win because of their lack of three-point shooting. Atlanta hit on just 26 percent of their three-point attempts this season. However, he also writes that this is the same team that reached the WNBA Finals last season.

Atlanta will win: Since Sancho Lyttle came back, the Dream are the team that reached the WNBA Finals last year. And Angel McCoughtry is special.

McCoughtry is a special player, this team is special, and coach Marynell Meadors did a special job of managing that 3-9 start and turning it into a 17-5 finish. The next challenge is going to be stealing a road win in Connecticut where the Sun only lost twice the entire season. However, Atlanta enters the playoffs playing as well as anyone in the WNBA and are a great reminder that the start isn't always quite as important as the finish.

We will be covering the Atlanta Dream's run through the playoffs at length here starting with a game preview on Friday.

For more on the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA Playoffs be sure and check out SB Nation's Women's Hoops Blog Swish Appeal.