7:00 PM ET, May 31, 2012
The Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury nearly met for the WNBA title the last two seasons. What the teams have in common this year is a missing piece to their starting lineups.That's resulted in slow starts for both clubs, which they'll try to shake out of beginning with Thursday night's matchup at Philips Arena.The Dream lost in the last two league finals while the Mercury finished one step short of that point in both seasons, falling in the Western Conference finals to Seattle and then Minnesota.Their bids to return to the playoffs aren't off to strong beginnings, and the absence of one starter hasn't helped each team.Atlanta (1-2) is without 6-foot-5 Erika de Souza, who is preparing for the Olympics with the Brazilian national team, while Phoenix (1-2) has lost forward Penny Taylor to a torn left ACL.Yelena Leuchanka has filled in for de Souza and scored 20 points while shooting 8 of 10 in two games after missing the season opener with a concussion. Atlanta, though, was held to a franchise-low 45 attempts from the floor and tied another dubious mark with seven assists in a 78-62 loss to Indiana on Sunday."We didn't move the ball well," Leuchanka said. "We didn't rotate well where we could have had some high-lows. We didn't recognize some things that were open out there. We didn't move as well on offense as we did the last game (a 100-74 win over New York on Friday)."Angel McCoughtry had a team-best 21 points despite being slowed by a strained muscle in her left leg. She averaged 24.5 points in the two matchups against Phoenix in 2011 but couldn't prevent a sweep.Taylor, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists during a 92-83 win in Atlanta on June 24, is out for the season after getting injured March 29 while playing overseas.Mercury star Diana Taurasi is also out indefinitely with a strained left hip flexor that limited her to 10 minutes over the first two games. She scored 18 points in 26 minutes Saturday as Phoenix fell 99-88 to Los Angeles.Candice Dupree had a team-best 24 points against the Sparks after scoring 31 during an 89-87 win at Tulsa on May 22. The forward, though, couldn't keep Los Angeles from grabbing 17 offensive rebounds."The 23 points off those rebounds. That really killed us," coach Corey Gaines said. "We've just got to get the rebounds."Dupree averaged 20.5 points and topped 60 percent shooting against Atlanta last season. DeWanna Bonner had a career-high 25 points and 13 boards during a 109-95 Mercury home win over the Dream on Aug. 11.