WNBA Today, 09/28/2011: Catchings fights through pain but Fever can’t keep up with the Dream

The build up to last night’s Eastern Conference Finals decider between Indiana and Atlanta was dominated by one person: Tamika Catchings. When she was carried from the floor towards the end of Game 2 in agony, her chances of making an appearance in the final game a scant two days later seemed slim, but the Fever kept making noises about her potentially being available. As tip-off neared, news slipped out that she’d torn the plantar fascia in her right foot but that doctors had cleared her to play. It was the kind of injury that she couldn’t make any worse, so if they could numb it enough and she could play through the remaining pain, she was available. It wasn’t quite Willis Reed, but with their emotional leader and best player available, Indiana looked like they might at least have a shot to make the Finals.

However, Catchings had played practically all the meaningful minutes of Game 2, and the Fever got their butts kicked anyway. It was a 16-point game when she went down with under five minutes left in the game. So Catchings or no Catchings, even back on their own floor, Indiana had a hell of a fight on their hands. With their starting center in Colombia for the FIBA Americas tournament, Atlanta went small in Game 2 and Iziane Castro Marques exploded for 30 points. If the Fever couldn’t deal with the Dream’s quickness better than they had on Sunday, Catchings may as well have stayed at home.

Inevitably, Atlanta opened the game with the same small lineup that ran away from Indiana in the previous game. The Fever brought guard Shavonte Zellous into their starting lineup to replace Catchings, who began the game on a stationary bike on the sidelines, keeping herself warmed up and ready to play. The early possessions revealed other changes made by the Fever in an attempt to alter the outcome. Defensively they had Zellous on Lindsey Harding, Erin Phillips sliding over to take Castro Marques, Katie Douglas chasing Angel McCoughtry and power forward Tangela Smith on speedy wing Armintie Price. It made sense, considering how much trouble Harding had given Phillips in the previous games, the need to keep McCoughtry quiet, and the fact that Price only wants to drive (Smith could sag off into the paint rather than chase her around). The problems were to come from how few occasions they’d have the time to choose who defended whom.

The opening quarter was just like Game 2 – played at far too fast a pace for Indiana to be in control. Continue reading

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WNBA Today, 09/26/2011: Small ball comes up big for Dream; Lynx class shines through

After Indiana and Minnesota both held on to home court advantage in Game 1 of their respective series, it was up to Atlanta and Phoenix to win Game 2 back on their own courts and force a decider. The former had to overcome the loss of a key player, the latter had to bounce back from being destroyed in the opening contest, so there was an extra element to both of Sunday afternoon’s games. Just in case they needed more than the fact that they were playing to keep their seasons alive.

Atlanta were back home for Game 2, but they’d lost their starting center. As expected, Erika de Souza had disappeared off to Colombia for the FIBA Americas tournament to help Brazil try to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. We could argue for hours over the choice to play for country over club but regardless of the various opinions on the subject, the Dream were left without a big piece of their frontcourt. Indiana had needed an outstanding (and unlikely) shooting performance from Tangela Smith to take Game 1, but with their opponents shorn of someone who played 37 minutes in that game, they had to think they were in with a chance of the sweep.

Dream coach Marynell Meadors decided to shake things up a little with de Souza out of the picture. Instead of the straight-up switch which would’ve involved Alison Bales sliding into the starting five, she opened the game with Erika’s fellow Brazilian Iziane Castro Marques on the floor. Izi had chosen to stay in Atlanta rather than fly out to play for Brazil, partly because her contract is running out and she’s worried about earning a new one, if you believe her comments in the press. More likely, she just preferred to stay with the Dream, expects Brazil to survive without her, and also expects to be in the Olympic team next year anyway. Castro Marques has always had something of a sense of entitlement when it comes to the Brazilian National Team. For Atlanta, it meant Angel McCoughtry sliding over to a theoretical power forward spot, with Sancho Lyttle the only true big on the floor. It’s a similar tactic to the one used by Meadors to make it through the opening two rounds of the playoffs last year, and inevitably makes them even faster than they already were. It’s also a tactic they can get away with against Indiana, because McCoughtry vs. Tangela Smith at the 4 is a mismatch in Atlanta’s favour, not Indiana’s.

The Fever opened the game defending the Dream pretty much straight up – Katie Douglas on Armintie Price at the 2, Tamika Catchings on Castro Marques at the 3, and Smith on McCoughtry at the 4. It didn’t last long. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/23/2011: Top seeds defend home court in contrasting fashion

So with the preliminaries of the first round out of the way, we’re down to our last four teams for the 2011 WNBA playoffs. Both Conference Finals series got underway last night, with everyone looking to get off to a good start. As with the previous round, the 1-1-1 format for the best-of-three series put the immediate pressure squarely on the teams with home court advantage – drop the opening game on your own floor, and the lower seed would have the chance to close things out on Sunday afternoon.

There’d already been celebrations over in the East, where Indiana‘s Tamika Catchings was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for 2011 earlier in the day. While it was a richly deserved award for a player who could easily have won it in previous years but never had, the announcement came with its own set of distractions just when she needed to concentrate. I’m sure Catchings was delighted to finally win an MVP trophy, but the WNBA Championship ring that has always eluded her is undoubtedly higher up her list of priorities. She’d probably have prefered to have spent the day preparing herself for Game 1, not smiling happily for the cameras and participating in press conferences. That being said, Atlanta had their own pressures. With Erika de Souza wanted by Brazil for the FIBA Americas tournament that starts on Saturday, Game 1 was expected to be the only game in the series where the Dream had their full squad intact. If they couldn’t steal the opening contest on the road, they’d have to win the last two without their starting center. So the opening game was crucial for both teams.

The starting fives were as expected, the same units these teams have been opening games with for months now, but the defensive matchups were interesting. As mentioned in the WNBAlien series preview, Atlanta were once again trying to hide Angel McCoughtry on Tangela Smith, keeping her away from Catchings and hopefully out of foul trouble. At the other end, the initial assignments were Erin Phillips taking fellow point guard Lindsey Harding, Katie Douglas chasing McCoughtry around, and Catchings on Armintie Price – but those three were very fluid. Douglas and Catchings especially were generally taking whichever Dream wing happened to be closest to them on any possession, and if they crossed paths and it was easier to switch than fight across, they simply swapped over.

It was a tight first quarter, and in fact a pretty closely fought first half. The pace of the game, mentioned as a vital element of the series in the preview, was largely in Indiana’s favour. There wasn’t too much charging from end-to-end, and most possessions were being developed in the half court. But, Indiana were giving up far too many turnovers early in the game. Continue reading

WNBAlien Playoff Previews – Western Conference Finals: Minnesota vs. Phoenix

#1 Minnesota Lynx vs. #3 Phoenix Mercury

 

Regular season series: Lynx 3-2

@ Min. 07/13: Mercury 112-105

@ Pho. 07/20: Lynx 106-98

@ Min. 08/02: Lynx 90-73

@ Pho. 08/09: Mercury 85-80

@ Pho. 09/11: Lynx 96-90

 

Pace is distinctly less likely to be an issue in this series than it is in the East. The Mercury love to run, and the Lynx rather enjoy running back at them. This could be a lot of fun for fans of offense.

As mentioned in the preview of the first round, the Lynx bore a remarkable statistical resemblance to the 2010 Seattle Storm this year. They show up next to that Storm team in an array of statistical lists, like points per possession (both offensive and defensive), scoring margin, rebounding margin and rebounding percentage. Both teams finished right among the leaders in WNBA history in several of those categories. And if you remember, the Mercury got swept at this very same stage in last year’s playoffs by that very same 2010 Seattle Storm. However, unlike Seattle last year, Minnesota looked vulnerable in the opening round. They salvaged their series in Game 3 with a blowout win, but a scrappy one-point victory in Game 1 and a fairly comfortable loss in Game 2 showed a lot of nerves and some fallibilities. But San Antonio are a very different team from Phoenix, and it’s questionable whether they can pick the same holes in the Lynx even if head coach Corey Gaines can pick them up on the tape. Continue reading

WNBAlien Playoff Previews – Eastern Conference Finals: Indiana vs. Atlanta

#1 Indiana Fever vs. #3 Atlanta Dream

 

Regular season series: Atlanta 4-0

@ Atl. 07/19: Dream 84-74

@ Ind. 08/27: Dream 86-80

@ Atl. 08/30: Dream 92-90

@ Ind. 09/11: Dream 93-88

 

Possibly the most extraordinary thing about this series is that I saw it coming. Really, go check – I had Indiana over New York and Atlanta over Connecticut in the East semi-finals in my preseason predictions back at the start of June, then took Indiana 2-1 over New York and Atlanta 2-0 over Connecticut in my previews last week. I’m as stunned as anyone, believe me (and the least said about my West predictions the better). But the reason I – and plenty of other people – expected these teams to be the last two standing in the East is pretty simple: they’re the best teams in the conference. Indiana had a slight late-season swoon, and Atlanta took a while to get going this year, but in the end it shook itself out and left us here. Now we get to see who can take the next step and head back to the WNBA Finals – 2010’s Eastern representative, or 2009’s.

It’s an intriguing matchup, not least because the Dream beat the Fever all four times they ran into each other this season. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/21/2011: A brawl and a blowout cut the West down to two

There are many different ways to play the game of basketball. Many different ways to win a game of basketball. Some of them are more pleasing on the eye than others, but when you look back at the record books in future years, all it tells you is who won or lost. Both of the WNBA’s Western Conference semi-finals went to deciding games, and the spectacles they produced were very different. But when it came down to it, two teams were delighted, two were disconsolate, and the rest was just details.

However, those were some pretty exciting details. Phoenix went up to Seattle on Monday night buoyed by their reasonably comfortable victory in Game 2. They might’ve had a horrible record against the Storm over the last couple of years, and they hadn’t won in Seattle since 2009, but they had the momentum after largely dominating the game in Arizona. The Key Arena crowd would inevitably help, and the Storm had been a vastly superior team on their own floor this season, but Game 2 had left them looking vulnerable. They’d need to perform far better than they had on Saturday to close out the series.

Both starting fives remained the same, DeWanna Bonner keeping her spot in the lineup for Phoenix despite Nakia Sanford now being fit enough to take part. It made sense, considering how effective they’d been in the previous game. Before we even get into the game action, let’s get the most obvious element of the discussion out the way first – this was a physical game. From the opening tip, it was just a war. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 09/20/2011: Fever fight through

Monday night in the WNBA was an illustration of the reasons we all spend so many hours watching these damn games. Passion and drama, spirit and excitement, players laying it all on the line in the effort to keep their seasons alive and try to win a championship. If you’re reading this and you haven’t seen last night’s games, much as I hate to send readers away, I can only suggest you take a few hours to catch up first. Don’t worry, this story will still be here when you get back.

The evening started in Indiana, with the deciding Game 3 of their series with New York. Back on their home floor with their own fans behind them, the Fever had to be considered favourites to join Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals, but after a comfortable win for New York in Game 2 it was far from a certainty. The series seemed wide open going in, and with 40 minutes of basketball left to play it could still have easily swung either way.

Same starting fives again, with neither coach springing any surprises. It’s a bit late to change anything now. These playoffs haven’t really been about messing around with the supporting pieces anyway – it’s been a matter of wondering when the superstars are going to show up. McCoughtry and Charles both failed to fire in the other Eastern semi-final, and now we were wondering if Tamika Catchings and Cappie Pondexter would produce in the deciding game of this one. Pondexter was 11-30 in the opening two games combined, bringing her poor late-season offensive production into the playoffs. Catchings was 7-20, including a 1-8 horror show in Game 2 that also included six turnovers. Both had been outplayed by their direct matchups in Katie Douglas and Nicole Powell in at least one of the prior games.

The early signs were better for Catchings than Pondexter. Continue reading