Trailing the Minnesota Lynx by 19 points midway through the third quarter, the Atlanta Dream appeared on the verge of beginning the 2023 WNBA season at a dispiriting 0-2.
But then Naz Hillmon, flashing some of the star-level scoring she showed at Michigan, captained a burst that cut Minnesota’s margin to nine points by the start of the game’s final period. While Hillmon attacked her way to nine points in the latter portion of the third quarter, Allisha Gray showed why Atlanta was so eager to acquire her in the fourth, scoring eight of her career-high-tying 26 points to secure the comeback win.
Previously-elusive hot shooting by the Dream, along with Napheesa Collier fouling out with 2:23 remaining, also aided Atlanta’s efforts. Once Collier exited, Minnesota failed to score, allowing Atlanta to get away with some sloppy play down the stretch yet still complete the franchise-record comeback.
The Dream’s overall performance against the Lynx, in combination with their opening loss against the Dallas Wings, exposed some underlying issues that Atlanta must be intentional about improving upon if they are to meet expectations. At the same time, the Dream also demonstrated reasons to be optimistic about their ability to approach those lofty expectations.
Here’s more on the Dream’s first two games:
Although absurd 3-point shotmaking from Arike Ogunbowale stole the highlights, the Dream did not drop their season opener to Dallas last Saturday because of Ogunbowale’s step-back spree. While the Dallas All-Star scored a game-high 27 points, she did so on 25 shots, including going just 4-for-14 from deep.
Instead, the 23 personal fouls committed, leading to 22 Dallas points from the line compared to 11 for Atlanta, contributed to the Dream loss. Satou Sabally earned nine of these freebies, draining eight of them as she netted an efficient and impactful 25 points.
Because of a lack of size, it is unsurprising the Dream can be a foul-happy team. Yet, it was not Cheyenne Parker, operating at center, who was the culprit; rather, the player at the 4 position, often tasked with guarding Sabally, struggled. Whereas Rhyne Howard was bodied by Sabally on multiple occasions, Nia Coffey labored to stay in front of her.
What a move from Satou Sabally. pic.twitter.com/tnwFiXY9JT— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 20, 2023
Yes, it is understandable for any defender to encounter issues when facing a talent like Sabally. This would not be considered a potentially glaring problem, except for the fact that many of the W’s best players also play the 4. If Atlanta is to prove itself a legitimate playoff threat, it will have to find a way to handle the likes of Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Elena Delle Donne and Alyssa Thomas. In short, Sabally is only a preview of what’s to come over the course of the season.
On the other end of the floor, Atlanta too often exhibited poor offensive process. It was expected that halfcourt offense would be a work in progress, but the Dream’s decisions did not make things easier. (It also is worth crediting the defense that new head coach Latricia Trammell had Dallas playing.)
It seems clear that Atlanta intends to take more 3s in order to manufacture spacing. The 32 threes it attempted represented more than the Dream attempted in any game last season. But Atlanta cashed in only nine 3-balls, good for a paltry 28.1 percent. So while taking more threes might be a smart strategy in a vacuum, the Dream lack the shooting threats needed to generate space simply by firing away. Driving and kicking to shooters could more effectively juice the Atlanta attack. For instance, Rhyne Howard heaved 12 threes, making four. All four of her conversions were assisted, created by actions or movement.
As discussed in the Dream season preview, Howard driving to the hoop could also assist the Atlanta offense. The sophomore had only one (unsuccessful) drive to the rim in the halfcourt. She also had no assists off drives.
Nevertheless, the Dream did do good things in this game. Atlanta had 17 offensive rebounds, with the irrepressible Parker grabbing nine of them. These efforts led to 21 second-chance points. As Atlanta seeks to optimize the halfcourt attack, earning points via dirty work can serve as a sustainable, floor-raising source of offense.
In outpacing Minnesota 24-10 in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, Atlanta showed that it can find more sustainable halfcourt scoring through smarter offensive process, even if it is unlikely to always result in shooting 46.7 percent from the field, including 3-of-5 from three.
In contrast to the majority of Atlanta’s long-range efforts against Dallas, the fourth-quarter threes in Minnesota were open and set attempts, produced off paint touches that drew an extra defender.
Atlanta also increased its overall offensive aggressiveness in the fourth, driving to the rim and drawing fouls. For the game, Gray more frequently drove to the basket in transition and halfcourt scenarios, leading to her earning eight trips to the foul line, three of which came in the critical fourth. Although going 3-of-6 from behind the arc helped Gray match her career high, she also was able to accumulate points, and situate Atlanta to steal the win, because of her willingness to put her head down and power her way to the basket, something Howard, with her size and skill, and Aari McDonald, with her speed, should seek to emulate.
It also should be noted that Atlanta benefitted from some good fortune in the fourth, headlined by Collier accruing a sixth foul. Prior to that, she was Minnesota's lone source of positive offense, scoring 14 of her 20 points in the second half. Just as the Dream, particularly Howard and Coffey, struggled to contain Sabally, they were ineffectual against Collier.
Howard, to her credit, did flash the lockdown defense she showed she was capable last season when she forced a 3-point miss from Kayla McBride with just over 15 seconds remaining, all but sealing the win for Atlanta.
In the week ahead, the Dream will have two opportunities to show improved processes on both ends of the floor, hosting contests against the Indiana Fever (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET) and Chicago Sky (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET).