September 16, 2023
‘She did her thing’: Rhyne Howard makes historic playoff debut for Atlanta Dream in Game 1 loss
'I’m not here to look to break records. I’m here to win'
Game 1 of the first round of the WNBA playoffs between the No. 5 seed Atlanta Dream and No. 4 seed Dallas Wings was like a game of air hockey. It was a fun, fast-paced game, led by explosive offensive attacks between the two youngest teams in the league.
The pace of play (106.8) was tied for the fifth-fastest single game this season and the fastest of the playoffs thus far, according to WNBA.com.
Atlanta opened the game on Friday with authority, scoring 12 points in the first four minutes. Seven of those points came from All-Star wing and second-year pro Rhyne Howard.
Howard continued her offensive explosion throughout the first quarter, knocking down pull-up jumpers, off-screen 3s and transition layups. At the end of the period, she already had 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the field and 3-for-3 from beyond the arc. That tied her with former Atlanta star Angel McCoughtry for the WNBA playoff record for points scored in a single quarter.
“It’s a playoff debut, so I had to come out and set the tone, not only for myself but for my teammates,” Howard told the media postgame. “This is a new season, so we can’t come out soft. That means I have to be aggressive and look for my shots; they all just happened to be falling in the first quarter.”
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However, like in air hockey, a slip-up can let the opposition climb back into the game in the blink of an eye.
Wings head coach Latricia Trammell inserted experienced guard Odyssey Sims in the lineup early in the second quarter to defend Atlanta at the point of attack. That ignited a Dallas run.
Atlanta led by 20 points with about nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, but it took Dallas less than five minutes to cut the lead to single digits. By halftime, the game was tied.
“I probably should have called a timeout during their run in the first half,” Atlanta head coach Tanisha Wright said postgame. “They got aggressive by putting [Sims] in.”
The Wings held Dream forward Cheyenne Parker and Howard scoreless in the second quarter. They created turnovers, forced Parker to take contested turnaround mid-range jumpers, created tough finishing angles for Dream guard Danielle Robinson, and limited Howard to one 3-point attempt.
“We have to keep our turnovers down, especially when we see them get a little bit more aggressive. We can’t get rattled,” Wright said. “We can’t get into it with officials; we focused a little too much on that.”
In the third quarter, it was a battle of stars between Atlanta’s Howard and Dallas’ Satou Sabally, who combined to score 21 points in the period. Howard connected on her first basket since the first quarter on a deep pull-up 3-pointer at the 6:12 mark. She then knocked down an above-the-break 3-pointer off a stagger screen from Parker, followed by another pull-up jumper in Sims’ face moments later.
Sabally, meanwhile, did a little bit of everything. The 6’4 forward had nine points on 3-for-6 shooting, two rebounds, two assists and a steal in the quarter. On her steal, Sabally blew up a handoff attempt for Howard, dove on the ground to secure the ball, and found a teammate to start Dallas’ transition offense.
“It’s fun,” Sabally said with a smile about competing against Howard. “She’s a great player, so all of the respect to her.”
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The fourth quarter for the Dream was much like the second quarter, but perhaps worse. The Dream shot 3-for-17 from the field and scored four points on 11 offensive possessions in the final five minutes. Dallas took advantage by outscoring Atlanta by 15 points en route to a 94-82 victory.
Despite the loss, Howard made history by becoming the first player in WNBA history to score 30 points in a WNBA playoff debut, according to Across The Timeline. The 23-year-old also became the youngest player to score 30 points in the playoffs and one of three players to make eight 3-pointers in a playoff game.
“I’m not here to look to break records. I’m here to win,” Howard said of her historic performance. “If it happens [again], it happens, but if it doesn’t, as long as we come out with a win, I really don’t care.”
Howard finished with 36 points, four rebounds and three steals on 13-for-29 shooting from the field and 8-for-15 shooting from beyond the arc.
It was amazing. She’s a bucket,” Atlanta guard Allisha Gray said. “Even when we were down, [Howard] hit some big shots for us. Overall, she did her thing. I am really proud of her.”
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What needs to improve for Atlanta to force a Game 3? There’s one simple answer: Two-point shooting. Atlanta struggled to finish at the rim, in large part due to the rim deterrence Dallas has with 6’7 center Teaira McCowan and the versatility of forward Natasha Howard. The Dream shot just 15-for-49 (30.9%) on 2-pointers, and their only interior scoring success came in transition. That disappeared in the second and fourth quarters.
“We have to keep looking to attack and getting downhill off of our ball screen actions,” Wright said. “I think if [Parker] would’ve made a couple of shots early, it would’ve been able to draw [McCowan] out on the perimeter a little bit more, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.”
Tune back in for Game 2 on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. To force a Game 3 in Atlanta, it’s a must-win for the Dream.