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Vickie Johnson’s Wings Are Still Becoming Who They Want to Be. Will They Get There in Time For the Playoffs?

Dallas' head coach speaks with D Magazine ahead of a homestand that could make or break her team's playoff hopes.
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This is the Dallas Wings team that everyone has been waiting for.

Avoiding a season sweep by the defending WNBA champion Chicago Sky, the Wings played stellar defense in an 84-78 road win on Tuesday night. Dallas had lost the first two meetings by single digits.

“Everyone probably thought we would lose tonight because we did not have Arike [Ogunbowale] and Satou [Sabally], who has not played for a minute,” coach Vickie Johnson told the media afterward. Both players are out with ankle injuries. “Everyone stepped up and played great basketball.”

Dallas led by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter and didn’t blink when the Sky closed the gap to 80-78 with 43 seconds left. “The way we played, the patience we played with was very key for us,” Johnson said. “And the discipline at the end of the game and how we closed the game was key.”

At 14-16 with six games left in the regular season, the Wings remain in sixth place in the standings, one and a half games ahead of the Atlanta Dream, New York Liberty, and Phoenix Mercury, who are all 13-18 and fighting for the final two playoff spots as of today.

Now the Wings return to Arlington for four consecutive games. But the home floor hasn’t been kind to this team, which has lost nine of 14. Dallas is 5-9 at the College Park Center and will take on the Aces tonight, the Liberty on Monday and Wednesday, and the Mercury next Friday, then close out the regular season in Los Angeles against the Sparks next Sunday. 

With the Dream and the Liberty on their heels, the Wings need to win one, if not both, of their upcoming matchups with the Liberty. If they also take care of the last-place Fever, that should be enough.

The pace and poise the Wings played with against the Sky is the type of basketball that can catapult them into contention as a serious playoff threat.

“The teams around the league know who we are,” Johnson said Tuesday. “They understand the talent that we have, and once we put it together, we just gotta click and realize how good we are. I think the league knows on any given night, we can turn it on, and we can decide to play, play together as a team, and win together as a team.”

The trick is doing that consistently. Take, for example, a two-game stretch late last month. Two nights after losing at home to the Washington Mystics in a game they trailed by as many as 21 points, the Wings had a franchise-record 17 steals and veteran Kayla Thornton scored a career-high 21 points in a road win over the Atlanta Dream.

The reason for the inconsistency? In the words of Johnson, the Wings are still becoming who they want to be in the WNBA. 

“They are still young, and they are still trying to find their identity as a team,” Johnson told D Magazine, pointing to spurts when the players focus as a team and “we’re very good” versus times when the team regresses into individual play.

“I think the main thing is that we are still growing,” she added. “We’re still trying to make sacrifices as far as doing the right thing, for the team no matter what. As long as we’re winning, that is all that should matter.”

The lack of a true veteran player—like, say, a Candace Parker or a Nneka Ogwumike—is still missing, but the pieces are there. Lately, that means Teaira McCowan, who has dominated the interior for the Wings. She turned in her third straight double-double against the Sky, with 20 points and 12 rebounds. After easing the center into the rotation after her European season with Galatasaray ran long, the head coach has leaned on the Wings’ prized offseason acquisition more than ever down the stretch, and she’s responded.

Still, the Wings have also been hampered by injuries at points throughout the season. Sabally missed seven games due to a knee injury, then went down in mid-July with what Johnson calls “a significant ankle injury.” She hasn’t played since. Awak Kuier suffered a minor ankle injury and missed a couple of games, giving little-used Charli Collier an opportunity to gain some minutes. Allisha Gray has also missed a couple of games.

In her second season at the helm, Johnson also has dealt with trade rumors, as well as fans—and even players—second guessing her lineups, minutes, and more. Things like this can distract even the best of teams, but they can be especially detrimental to a squad still trying to find its footing. Yet when I asked Johnson how she responded to the questions coming from both in and out of her locker room, she said none of them got on her radar.

“A lot of the time I don’t even know what’s going on, on social media,” Johnson said. “I learned a long time ago not to read the media or newspapers. They will build you up, and they will tear you down. I am here for one reason. I am here because God placed me here, so I am here for a purpose, and it is to help these young ladies be better and be the best version of themselves and to tell them the truth.”

Johnson said by virtue of being in the league for 26 years, she knows what everyone says about the Wings, so she stays grounded “because the enemy is attacking. We are close, we are close to having a breakthrough. We’re about to jump over the hill. And the devil is attacking us, attacking individuals, attacking me.”

Despite the noise, Johnson said she feels no pressure to win because it is out of her control. “I control this: is my team prepared on both sides of the basketball, mentally, emotionally, physically prepared?” she said. “And then once you—and I learned this from Bill Laimbeer—once you do all of that, when they step on the court, it is what it is. I can’t shoot the free throw, I can’t make the shot, but I can put them in position to be successful, and that is the only thing I can control.”

That said, the Wings can control some areas if they aim to become playoff threats. They can be more consistent on defense. They can strike earlier in the game. They can move the ball better. They are the league’s second-worst free-throw shooting team, and they rank third from the bottom in field goal percentage. But Johnson believes her team’s greatest hurdle is mental. 

“I think our attitude, that we believe we belong, is the most important thing,” Johnson said. “And once that happens, we just play basketball. Play with high energy and focus because the playoffs are different. That’s a new season, and you can’t make mental mistakes. You have to pay attention to detail.” 

Ogunbowale, meanwhile, believes the key to becoming a playoff threat is playing as a team at both ends of the floor. “When we are moving the ball, getting contributions from everyone, that will help because we are all hard to guard and we have a lot of scorers,” she said. “So moving the ball, but also helping each other on defense and playing team defense.”

As the Wings prepare to make their final playoff push, staying locked in is key. Or as Johnson puts it, stay focused and disciplined. “Focus is the first 35 minutes,” she said. “Discipline is the last five.” 

And if the Wings can get locked in, there’s no telling how far they can fly.

Author

Dorothy J. Gentry

Dorothy J. Gentry

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Dorothy J. Gentry covers the Wings for StrongSide. A native Dallasite, she is a journalist and educator who covers the…

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