Heading into this week’s action, Atlanta Dream rookie Rhyne Howard led the WNBA in points (20.5 points). It was an incredible feat for an incredible talent, which we talked about in this space.
Her sweater is sheer and she is able to access it in multiple ways. To the dream’s credit, they did a great job moving her around the board to stress the defenses. Playing Drop Cover against the Dream is practically begging them to perform a moveset for Howard.
They ran that doozy for Howard a few times this season. Decoy action can vary, but the goal of the Dream is to clear one side of the field before placing a flare screen for Howard to fill in that empty space. The Los Angeles Sparks were ill-prepared for this earlier in the season.
The options are endless. If the screen hits, Howard can throw herself into a sweater like she did in the clip above. While the on-screen navigation is a little better, it has plenty of room to attack on the rebound. She can reset and go iso. It can flow into an empty pick-and-roll corner with whoever set the initial flare screen. Heck, they can just flip the screen angle and make it come the other way.
On May 20, Howard walked out of the gates shooting. She was facing the hot Washington Mystics, but they didn’t feel like they could keep up with her. Howard would score 15 of his 21 points in the opening frame, including a bucket on an all-too-familiar play.
Big backup Tianna Hawkins (#21) sees it coming. Twice in action – once as Aari McDonald (#2) executes a handoff to the left corner, and once as Naz Hillmon (#0) sets up the flare screen for Howard-Hawkins points to the empty side. She knows that Kennedy Burke has her work cut out for her, but she still hangs on the screen.
Howard couldn’t come off like that for the rest of the game. Again, she scored 15 points in the first frame but only six points the rest of the way. After the Dream dropped 25 points in the first, they scored 19, 14 and 15 points the rest of the way.
That brings us to Tuesday’s game, where the Dream wanted revenge for their five-point loss. Where Howard wanted to catch up on a quiet three-quarter streak. The Mystics just didn’t have it, and that was evident from the opening trick.
On the left side of the floor you have Natasha Cloud (#9) blasting the pindown and linking up with Kristy Wallace. Howard and Cheyenne Parker (#32) attempt to place screens in the middle of the ground to get the Mystics moving, but Ariel Atkins (#7) is able to navigate the mud and stay attached to Erica Wheeler (#7). ° 17) as she clears The right side.
From there, it’s on.
The flare for Howard is coming, but look at the prep work Alysha Clark (#22) is doing. She gets into Howard’s jersey before the screen is even set:
As Parker stares at the choice, Clark is able to slow Howard down with a grab before she attempts to hover over him.
Doing the homework early basically blew the first part of the whole thing off. Howard and Parker attempt to go for a pick-and-roll with an empty side from there, but the Mystics had other plans. They set a trap for Howard, essentially pinning her in the right corner.
Good work on Howard from Clark and rookie Shakira Austin. Cloud has the Parker mission. Atkins to Wallace. Elena Delle Donne is at the back of the action, keeping an eye on two Dream players on the right side of the floor. In other words, there are no easy outlets here.
Howard is able to jump out of it, but the Mystics are able to spin behind that pass. Wallace gets the pass and is immediately pressured. The Dream does a good job of countering with a pin-in screen on Delle Donne, but she fights for it and gets a late contest on Wheeler’s three.
Things didn’t get any easier for Howard or the Dream. On an individual level, Howard would miss all nine field goal attempts and end the game with [checks notes] zero points. It was easily his worst outing as a pro. His average score fell from a league-leading 20.5 to 17.6, a clip that ranks 10th in the league.
And without Howard getting buckets, the rest of the team faltered. The Dream scored 50 points on the night as the Mystics took a 70-50 victory.
Thanks to that game, the Mystics now hold the best defensive rating in the WNBA at 92.3. Even before this game, the Mystics impressed with their mix of ball pressure and activity from the baseline.
If you want some not-so-hidden joy watching this team, take a look at their activity whenever an offense attempts to execute a pick-and-roll from the wing. They attempt to “ICE” most of them, which means the defender on the ball shadows the ball carrier towards the sideline. The fun really picks up from there, though.
Because they don’t have a pure anchor in the drop cover, the pickup points for their big ones are a bit higher. And because everything of their greats – Austin, Delle Donne, Hawkins, Myisha Hines-Allen and newly arrived Elizabeth Williams – are active with their hands, the ballhandlers quickly find themselves in trouble.
Watching the Delle Donne-Austin frontcourt was especially fun. There were questions about how Delle Donne would hold up defensively after his injury-riddled layoff. And it’s always fair to wonder how quickly a great rookie like Austin can acclimate to the big leagues. Both rose to the challenge; in fact, the Mystics allow an 85(!) defensive rating when these two share the field.
Getting ball pressure from Cloud and Clark — a pair of wings with All-Defensive team selections under their belt — or Rui Machida off the bench (she’s fun) is one thing. Having active bigs can add another layer of chaos. Combining that with opportunistic help from defenders can make an attack feel like it’s suffocating.
Shatori Walker-Kimbrough currently leads the team in steals (1.6), mostly thanks to her off-ball prowess. Atkins (1.5 steals) isn’t too far behind her, showing why she’s
too made multiple All-Defensive teams in his career.
I mentioned Burke was burned by the flare action for Howard earlier in the play, but she’s been a problem for offenses before as an assist defenseman.
This activity was important. The Mystics currently rank third in opponent turnover rate, with offenses totaling 21.2 turnovers per 100 possessions. That’s well over last season (17.9) and not too far off the franchise record (21.6) set in 2005.
(And on that note, team fouls were way worse then; the average turnover rate of league opponents in 2005 was 18.1, well above the 15.9 mark that season. And it’s early in the year, so that number will likely decrease as the season progresses.)
We know what a healthy Mystics team can do offensively. Delle Donne is one of the most versatile offensive talents in basketball history. Cloud is a dynamic slasher and confident shooter. There’s a lot of shooting, shooting, and driving fairness on the list.
The defense was a pleasant surprise, although we could see a regression at some point. Opponents are only shooting 31.4% to 3, and the multiple efforts required to make their plan work can create openings on that front.
They may not be the best defense in basketball. But if they hover around 3rd or 4th place, it’s still much better than they were last season (104.4 defensive rating, 11th out of 12 teams). And if the defense can hold, we have to start talking about this team as a serious title contender.