WNBA Best Bets: Wednesday, September 8

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The WNBA season continues tonight and two games are on, beginning at 7 pm ET when the Phoenix Mercury visit Atlanta to face the Dream. Phoenix is one of the hottest teams in the league entering this game, but I think Atlanta has a clear advantage for the spread tonight despite going 0-2 against Phoenix in the first two matchups this season. The line opened with Phoenix listed as 9.5-point favorites and dropped to 9 with news of Diana Taurasi's doubtful status and dropped even further when the Mercury announced Brittney Griner would be out tonight for personal reasons. My WNBA picks went 11-9 since the break, including a 5-1 record on two-unit plays.

Atlanta Dream vs. Phoenix Mercury

The Atlanta Dream recently snapped an 11-game losing streak with the team's first win under interim coach Darius Taylor. Atlanta hopes this is the beginning of the franchise turning the corner as the Dream announced today that Morgan Shaw Parker joined the team as president and chief operating officer. The Dream own the second-worst record in the league this season at 7-20, but earned the second-best record against the spread among all teams in the Eastern Conference at 14-12-1. Atlanta fared even better against large spreads this season, going 13-9-1 ATS as underdogs.

Atlanta is still playing without Chennedy Carter, who averaged 14.2 points per game before being suspended for conduct detrimental to the team in early July. Courtney Williams and Tiffany Hayes stepped up to lead the team in her absence. Williams made her first career All-Star team this season averaging 16.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and a team-high 4.2 assists per game. Hayes is second on the team in scoring and while she battled injury and only averaged seven points per game since the break, she still made 43.1% of her 3-pointers this year and ranks in the 87th percentile for overall offensive Points Per Possession (PPP) behind her skills as a pick and roll ball handler (86th percentile) and as a cutter (96th percentile).

Rookie Aari McDonald improved her play since the break, averaging 7.6 points and 2.3 assists in the second half compared to 5.9 points and 1.6 assists before the break. She also shot more efficiently in the second half and owns the best plus-minus on the team since the break, as referenced in a recent story about McDonald by The Next. McDonald's ability as a perimeter defender has been a pleasant surprise for Atlanta this season.

McDonald ranks in the 85th percentile of overall defensive PPP allowed this season and despite her issues fighting through off-ball screens, her on-ball defense ranks near the top of the league. McDonald grades in the 89th percentile of PPP against opposing pick and roll ball handlers and showed flashes of dominant isolation defense in a small sample size, allowing zero points on 10 opposing iso possessions this year to lead the league in defensive PPP against isolation plays. The rookie should play a big role in this game against a Mercury team that paces the league in PPP scored on isolation plays.

Since the break, Atlanta hasn't been able to win many games; but the team's overall performance improved, especially on the defensive end. The Dream averaged more rebounds and blocks per game since the break while decreasing turnovers and opposing points allowed. Atlanta allowed a league-high 88.3 points per game before the break compared to only 78.4 points per game in the team's eight second-half matchups. As the chart shows, the Dream saw improvements in most defensive stats since the break.

The Atlanta Dream defense has been significantly better since the break.
The Atlanta Dream defense has been significantly better since the break.

WNBA.com

Part of the reason Atlanta's defense improved since the break is increased playing time for center Elizabeth Williams. Williams leads the league in blocks per game since the break with 2.1 per night after the Dream bumped up her minutes from 21.6 per game pre-break to 27.4 in the second half.

Atlanta faces a tough test in the Mercury, as Phoenix won the last nine games and led the league in scoring, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and rebounding during that span. A big part of the Mercury's success came from center Brittney Griner, who just won her fourth Western Conference Player of the Week award of the seasonnMonday for averaging 20 points, five rebounds and 2.5 assists in the Mercury's two wins last week. Griner ranks second in scoring and fifth in rebounding among all WNBA players this season while leading the league in blocks per game. Brianna Turner is a strong interior player who can make up for Griner's loss, but the Mercury will also play without the WNBA's all-time leading scorer in Diana Taurasi.

Taurasi is listed doubtful with a left ankle injury and there is no reason for the 39-year-old to play tonight with Phoenix already locking up a playoff spot. The veteran wing played a big role in the Mercury's winning streak, putting up 14.5 points, 5.1 boards and 5.6 assists in the last eight games. Taurasi is still one of the most feared snipers in the league and paced the WNBA in 3-point attempts per game this season. Without Griner and Taurasi, the scoring onus will be placed on Skylar Diggins-Smith. While Diggins-Smith has played extremely well recently, I think the Dream should be able to limit the rest of Phoenix's team enough to stay within the spread tonight.

The key to this game will be the transition battle and second-chance opportunities. Atlanta grabbed the second-most offensive rebounds per game this season and led the league in steals per game, two areas where Phoenix often struggles. The Mercury rank last in the league in both steals per game and points scored off turnovers while allowing the most opposing second-chance points per game. The Phoenix defense also struggles against pick and roll ball handlers, allowing the second-most opposing PPP according to Synergy, so Hayes and Williams should be able to penetrate the paint without Griner active to block shots.

The line moved quickly after the news of Griner's absence so the best spreads are now off the board, but I still like the Dream as a two-unit play up to +7. I took Atlanta at +9 but if you missed those odds, I'd consider putting one unit on the spread as long as it doesn't drop below +5.

EDGE: Atlanta Dream +9 (2 Units)

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