ATLANTA — I want to start off this column on a somber note. On Thursday, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian jail for smuggling cannabis oil in her luggage. In response, WNBA players and coaches decided not to speak to the media in solidarity with Griner.
Indeed, at the press conference that I was at on Friday night, Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright declared that she would not take questions from us and asked that we would write about Griner’s plight and bring more attention to it. Honestly, it has been great to see WNBA players bringing attention to a cause bigger than basketball, especially the same week that we lost Bill Russell, as this in a way did indeed honor his civil and human rights legacy off the court.
While I’m not going to get into the partisan mudslinging surrounding this story, all I will say is that I simply can’t imagine what Griner is going through right now. I am praying for her and her family during this difficult time as well as Paul Whelan and his family and all of the Americans and people unjustly detained overseas and their families.
I am praying that our government will do what they have to do in order to bring these people home. I will end by speaking directly to Brittney, Paul, or anyone else that might be reading this: God loves you, and I love you too.
On to the actual game itself, it was a true drag-down fight in every sense of the word. It literally came down to the last play as the final minute all by itself had so much action packed into it.
After Naz Hillmon made one out of two free throws to give the Dream an 83-81 lead, Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike tied the game at 83, but Aari McDonald came back on the other end and gave her team back the lead, 86-83, with a floater and an and-one with 48.6 seconds to go.
After the teams took turns missing shots, the Sparks called timeout with 6.5 seconds left to draw up a play in order to send the game to overtime. The play was successful, as Katie Lou Samuelson managed to shake a defender and drain a game-tying three with 3.2 seconds left.
With the game tied at 86, Wright called a timeout of her own so that she could devise a play that would win the game. The ball eventually was inbounded to Cheyenne Parker who drove on the baseline and managed to lay the ball in with 0.3 seconds left to give the Dream the 88-86 victory as the Sparks failed to get a tying shot off in time.
I was going into this game expecting to learn a lot about this Atlanta Dream basketball team and that I did. The three things that I was most impressed with were their 3-point shooting, offensive rebounding and timely scoring. As a team, they shot 37.5 percent from 3-point range and had eight offensive rebounds, almost all of them coming at crucial points in the game.
The thing that especially blew me away was the way in which rookie Rhyne Howard essentially put her team on her back to the tune of 28 points, four rebounds, three assists and one steal. She shot 58 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3-point range and 91 percent from the free-throw line in a truly complete performance.
I truly believe that this is the kind of performance that will not only help the Dream make the playoffs, but also will solidify Howard’s case as the 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year. It’s simply undeniable that she has been asked to do more for her team than any other rookie in the league. As the No. 1 overall pick, that is to be expected, but, still, it’s so impressive how she has not only lived up to the expectations, but in some ways has exceeded them.
All of her scoring damage came in the first and third quarters, as she had 16 and 12 points, respectively, in those frames. Her teammates provided reliable support, as Parker had 15 points on 58 percent shooting along with six rebounds, two assists and one block. Two other double-digit scorers for the Dream were Maya Caldwell and Aari McDonald with 12 points each. Hillmon was another key contributor with seven points on 60 percent shooting along with nine rebounds, four of them being offensive.
I was so highly impressed with this performance not just because it was a complete team performance, but because this is the kind of game that the Dream need to win if they want to make the playoffs. Admittedly, these past few weeks, I have been doubtful wondering if the Dream can even make the playoffs and came into this game saying that if they lose, they’re not making the playoffs.
I am glad that I was proven wrong and again, I really do love what I’m seeing from this team both on and off the court. I am very confident in this team’s chances of making the playoffs with four games to go in the season, and if they do, I look forward to seeing what they do once they get there.