Heading into this week's action, Atlanta
Dream rookie Rhyne Howard was leading the WNBA in scoring (20.5
points). It was an incredible feat for an incredible talent, one
that we've talked about in this space.
Her jumper is pure, and she's able to get to it in a multitude
of ways. To the Dream's credit, they've done a great job moving her
around the chess board to stress defensess. Playing drop coverage
against the Dream is practically begging for them to run a movement
set for Howard.
They've run this doozy for Howard a few times this season. The
decoy action may vary, but the goal for the Dream is to clear one
side of the court before setting a flare screen for Howard to fill
that empty space. The Los Angeles Sparks were ill-prepared for it
earlier in the season.
The options are endless. If the screen hits, Howard can flow
into a jumper like she did in the clip above. If the screen
navigation is a little better, she has plenty of space to attack
off the bounce. She can reset and go iso. It can flow into an empty
corner pick-and-roll with whoever set the initial flare screen.
Heck, they can just flip the angle of the screen and have her come
the other way.
On May 20, Howard came out of the gates firing. She was facing
the red-hot Washington Mystics, but it didn't feel like they could
keep track of her. Howard would score 15 of her 21 points in the
opening frame, including a bucket off an all-too-familiar
Backup big Tianna Hawkins (#21) sees it coming. Twice in the
action--once while Aari McDonald (#2) is executing a handoff in the
left corner, and again as Naz Hillmon (#0) is setting up the flare
screen for Howard--Hawkins points toward the empty side. She knows
Kennedy Burke has her work cut out for her, but she gets hung up on
the screen anyway.
Howard wasn't able to shake loose like that for the rest of the
game. Again, she scored 15 in the opening frame but just 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 the Tuesday matchup, where the Dream wanted to
exact revenge for their five-point loss. Where Howard wanted to
make up for a quiet three-quarter stretch. The Mystics simply
weren't having it, and it was evident from the opening tip.
On the left side of the floor, you have Natasha Cloud (#9)
blowing up the pindown and getting reattached to Kristy Wallace.
Howard and Cheyenne Parker (#32) attempt to set screens in the
middle of the floor to get the Mystics moving, but Ariel Atkins
(#7) is able to navigate the muck and stay attached to Erica
Wheeler (#17) as she clears the right side.
From there, it's go time.
The flare for Howard is coming, but look at the prep work Alysha
Clark (#22) does. She gets inside of Howard's jersey before the
screen is even set:
As Parker sets the pick, Clark is able to slow Howard up with a
grab before she attempts to fly over it.
Doing the homework early essentially blew up the first portion
of the set. Howard and Parker attempt to go into a pick-and-roll
with an empty side from there, but the Mystics had other plans.
They sprang a trap on Howard, essentially pinning her in the right
That's good work on Howard from Clark and rookster Shakira
Austin. Cloud has the Parker assignment. Atkins has Wallace. Elena
Delle Donne is on the backside of the action, keeping tabs 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-pass her way out of it, but the Mystics
are able to rotate behind that pass. Wallace gets the release pass
and is immediately pressured. The Dream do a good job of countering
with a pin-in screen on Delle Donne, but she fights over it and
gets a late-clock contest on the three from Wheeler.
Things didn't get easier for Howard or the Dream. On the
individual front, Howard would miss all nine of her field goal
attemtps and end the game with [checks notes] zero points. It was
easily her worst outing as a pro. Her scoring averaged dropped from
a league-leading 20.5 to 17.6, a clip that ranks 10th in the
And without Howard getting buckets, the rest of the team
faltered. The Dream scored 50 points on the evening as the Mystics
racked up a 70-50 victory.
Because of that game, the Mystics now hold the WNBA's best defensive rating at 92.3.
Even before that game, the Mystics have impressed with their blend
of ball pressure and activity on the backline.
If you want a not-so-hidden joy when watching this team, peep
their activity whenever an offense tries to run a pick-and-roll
from the wing. They attempt to "ICE" most of them, meaning the
on-ball defender shades the ball handler toward the sideline. The
fun really perks up from there, though.
Because they don't have a pure anchor in drop coverage, the
pick-up points for their bigs are a little higher. And
because all of their bigs--Austin, Delle Donne,
Hawkins, Myisha Hines-Allen and freshly-in-the-fold Elizabeth
Williams--are active with their hands, ball-handlers find
themselves in trouble quickly.
Watching the Delle Donne-Austin frontcourt has especially been
fun. There were questions about how Delle Donne would hold up
defensively after her injury-riddled layoff. And it's always fair
to wonder how quickly a rookie big like Austin can get acclimated
to the big leagues. Both have embraced the challenge; in fact, the
Mystics are allowing a defensive rating of 85 (!) when those two
share the court.
Getting ball pressure from Cloud and Clark--a pair of wings with
All-Defensive team selections under their belts--or Rui Machida off
the bench (she's fun) is one thing. Having active bigs can
add another layer of mayhem. Combining that with opportunistic help
defenders can make an offense feel like it's suffocating.
Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is currently leading the team in steals
(1.6), mostly off the strength of her off-ball prowess. Atkins (1.5
steals) isn't too far behind her, showcasing why she's
also made multiple All-Defensive teams in her career.
I mentioned Burke getting burned by the flare action for Howard
earlier in the piece, but she's already been a problem for offenses
as a help defender.
That activity has been important. The Mystics currently rank
third in opponent turnover rate, with offenses coughing up 21.2
turnovers per 100 possessions. That's way up from last season
(17.9), and not too far off the franchise record (21.6) set back in
(And on that note, team offenses were way worse back
then; the league average opponent turnover rate in 2005 was 18.1,
much higher than the 15.9 mark this season. And we're early in the
year, so that number will likely fall as the season goes on.)
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
plenty of shot-making, shooting and driving equity on the
The defense has been a pleasant surprise, though we may see
regression at some point. Opponents are only shooting 31.4% from 3,
and the multiple efforts needed to make their scheme work can
create some openings on that front.
They may not be the best defense in basketball.
But if they hover around 3rd or 4th, that's still much better than
they were last season (104.4 defensive rating, 11th out of 12
teams). And if the defense can hang, we need to start talking about
this team as a serious title contender.