After a crazy finish on Monday forced a deciding game, last night saw the Indiana Fever and Connecticut Sun meet in a winner-takes-all decider for the Eastern Conference title. The victors would be heading straight to Minnesota for Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday night; the losers would be packing their bags and scattering around the globe for their offseason gigs. All that work over the hard slog of the regular season, and this 40 minutes would decide who got to play for the ring, and whose season was over.
The starting lineups were the same once again, and the most obvious thing to take from the opening exchanges was that the officials were going with a distinctly laissez-faire approach – they were going to “let ‘em play”, especially in the paint. While there were some brief positive signs for Connecticut – Tina Charles was beating Erlana Larkins to rebounds, Asjha Jones had a pretty spin move around Tamika Catchings to open the scoring – it was Indiana who found their rhythm quicker. They knocked down a series of jump shots, with Catchings, Katie Douglas and Erin Phillips all accurate from the perimeter early, forcing Sun head coach Mike Thibault into a quick timeout with his team trailing 9-2.
Moments later came something no one wants to see, especially in the playoffs. Douglas drove into the lane, contriving a way to create a left-handed shot from the right side of the floor, as is often her style. The finish rimmed out, but far more important was Douglas’s landing. She came down on Tan White’s foot, and Douglas’s left foot twisted nastily. The idiotic rule that doesn’t allow the referees to stop the game meant Catchings hit a three before Phillips intentionally fouled to stop the game – all while Douglas was flat out on the court in agony. After a long pause while the trainers looked at Douglas and teammates surrounded her in support, she was helped from the floor while putting virtually no weight on her injured foot at all. That was the last we’d see of her for the rest of the night, bar the footage of her being stretchered into an ambulance so she could be taken to a local hospital for x-rays.
So the Fever were up 12-4 and had come out shooting well from outside, but they’d lost one of their key players barely five minutes into the game. They also had point guard Briann January looking uncertain and committing unusually weak turnovers. And Tina Charles looking good on the glass for the Sun. But amazingly, the Fever were still on top. They were still the ones knocking down every outside shot imaginable, with Shavonte Zellous coming in and smoothly filling Douglas’s shoes. Connecticut couldn’t hit from the perimeter, and were even struggling on basic finishes inside or putback attempts from offensive rebounds. They were lucky to be as close as 18-10 at the end of the first quarter.
It didn’t get any better for the Sun. Jessica Davenport came in for Indiana and once again provided useful minutes in the paint with her midrange game and size, but it was still the shooters doing the damage. Catchings kept hitting, Phillips and Zellous kept hitting, Jeanette Pohlen came in and offered up her first useful minutes of the playoffs – including another couple of threes to join the barrage. It was extraordinary. Indiana have had games like this over the course of the season, where they simply become incredibly hot from outside, but to pull it out in a game this important against a solid defensive team like Connecticut was something else. There wasn’t one particular method that repeatedly created these shots. Catchings was pulling up and firing from the top of the arc – shots that Connecticut would probably live with her taking. Occasionally she’d pull the typical move of a semi-penetration drive to pull the defender from the corner before kicking it to a shooter. Other shots were created off simple ball movement and working the ball to find the open player. By halftime, Indiana were 7-7 from beyond the arc.
The Sun were a mirror image. Indiana were overplaying the strong side and the paint, closing off anything inside as much as they could against Charles and Jones. With the refs still not calling anything on the bumping and barging under the rim, that led to the Sun trying to make difficult passes through traffic to players on the weak side – which inevitably resulted in turnovers. Alternatively, they fired away from long range, and hit nothing. Connecticut were 0-10 from three-point range in the first half, with the frustration noticeably growing as Indiana’s lead continued to increase. The Sun started making uncharacteristic errors as they were desperately trying to find a foothold in the game, and when they weren’t making poor passes for turnovers, players were trying to make something happen all on their own. For a team that have excelled through their unselfishness and teamwork all season, it was a painful collapse. On their own home floor, Connecticut were down 43-24 at halftime.
Beyond the three-point shooting, the remarkable stat at halftime was that the Sun were leading 20-10 in points in the paint. It’s incredibly unusual that a team could be so thoroughly on top in interior scoring, and yet so dominated overall. Indiana were just shooting that well. It continued on into the third quarter, with the added element of the Fever picking up offensive rebounds. They had 1 in the entire first half, before adding 5 in the opening 4 minutes of the third quarter – every one of them leading to second-chance points for Indiana.
Later in the period, with Connecticut finally creating some effective offense through Renee Montgomery drives, Asjha Jones finishes and Kara Lawson bombs, the Sun found yet another way to break down. After the official timeout midway through the third quarter, Connecticut converted baskets on seven consecutive possessions, for a total of 16 points. But it meant virtually nothing, because they also conceded 12 points during that stretch, largely on layups. January had come out looking like a different player in the second half, finally finding enough room to penetrate the defense and work her way to the rim. She was the driving force offensively for Indiana in that sequence, although Zellous, Larkins and Catchings all contributed as well. It meant that even with Connecticut’s offense finally joining the party, Indiana still led 68-48 to close the third quarter.
Understandably, Thibault was trying anything by this point. He’d pulled Danielle McCray off the end of his bench to close the first half, and opened the fourth quarter with Kelsey Griffin seeing her first minutes of the postseason. But there was just no way back. That run at the end of the third should have been Connecticut’s push to make it a game again, but the lack of stops prevented it from happening. Again in the fourth quarter, even if they made a bucket or two in succession, someone would nail a shot for Indiana to immediately quell any thought of a comeback. The Fever lead didn’t drop below 20 until inside the final three minutes, by which time the game was well and truly over, and many of the fans had already wandered through the exits. The game finished with a remarkable 87-71 Indiana win, and in reality it wasn’t even that close.
What a horrible way for the season to come to an end for Connecticut. In some ways, this is even worse than a last-second shot, where at least you can feel like one bounce of the ball could’ve made the difference. Instead, they were just shot off the floor. Their own floor. Charles missed a lot of chippies inside which might’ve made a difference in the momentum if they’d dropped early, but still finished with solid stats of 8-17 for 18 points and 10 boards. Jones was a quiet 5-9 for 10 points and just 2 boards – Catchings totally dominated that matchup in this vital game – while Lawson picked an inopportune night to shoot badly, ending the game 5-15 for 16 points. To some extent you have to credit Indiana’s defense. They swarmed around Charles and Jones whenever they ventured down low, showed hard on screens when the ball was in the hands of the dangerous Sun shooters, and invariably switched, rotated or recovered quickly enough to fill any gaps left behind. But the Sun also just missed a lot of shots, on the worst possible night.
For Indiana, it was an outstanding performance, especially considering they were without Douglas for nearly all of it. She’s probably their best perimeter scorer, one of their biggest threats to light it up from outside, and a key ballhandler – but they dominated even without her. Catchings finished 7-16 for 22 points (plus 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks), but it felt like she shot significantly better than that. She knocked down big jumper after big jumper when the Fever were establishing their dominance, and led her team back to the big dance. The supporting players all stepped up when they had to. Phillips, January, Zellous and Pohlen all scored in double-digits, with Larkins pulling down 10 rebounds in the final battle of her war with Charles. As a team the Fever shot 55%, including 10-16 from three-point range, and did a solid job of never taking their foot off the gas in the second half and allowing Connecticut to make it a game again. Indiana were simply in charge all night long.
Now attention will turn to Minnesota, where the Lynx await in the Finals. No useful information has emerged about Douglas’s status yet, except to say that she’s ‘day-to-day’ with a sprained ankle. That could mean anything from strap it up tight and she’ll fight through the pain for Game 1, to a torn ligament they don’t want to talk about that’ll keep her out for at least three months. While Indiana managed to pull out the win over Connecticut without her, their chances against the Lynx drop significantly without Douglas available. They’ll be hoping that the immediate pain and fear of letting her team down was what caused the agony stretched across Douglas’s face, and that she’ll find a way to play. If not for Game 1, then at least later in the Finals.
The Los Angeles Sparks hired Vincent Malcolm as their new President, and promoted long-time General Manager Penny Toler to Executive Vice-President and General Manager.
The bumper WNBAlien WNBA Finals Preview will arrive tomorrow, so please check back before the games begin on Sunday night. Amazingly enough, I’m 6-0 predicting the series winners in the playoffs so far (4 of 6 with the correct scoreline), so if nothing else come back just to find out who’s going to win it all.
WNBA Finals Schedule
Sunday October 14th:
Indiana @ Minnesota, Game 1, 8pm ET
Wednesday October 17th:
Indiana @ Minnesota, Game 2, 8pm ET
Friday October 19th:
Minnesota @ Indiana, Game 3, 8pm ET
Sunday October 21st:
Minnesota @ Indiana, Game 4 (if necessary), 8pm ET
Wednesday October 24th:
Indiana @ Minnesota, Game 5 (if necessary), 8pm ET