#1 Indiana Fever (21-13) vs. #4 New York Liberty (19-15)
Regular season series: Tied 2-2
@ Ind 06/10: Liberty 81-80
@ N.Y. 06/11: Fever 86-80
@ Ind 08/13: Fever 82-71
@ N.Y. 09/09: Liberty 83-75
The strange thing about this series is that both teams might well have chosen to play the other, given the options available in the Eastern Conference. Going into the final day of the regular season, Indiana could’ve ended up with New York or Atlanta in the first round. With an 0-4 record against the Dream this year, and with Atlanta coming off a late-season tear, there was a definite feeling that Indiana were comfortable losing on Sunday to create a matchup with New York instead. For the Liberty, while their first choice might’ve been to sneak into the #2 seed for home court advantage, they probably weren’t too disappointed to drop below the Dream into fourth. Instead of having to deal with Tina Charles and Connecticut’s formidable home record, the Liberty get Indiana, whose form has been almost as inconsistent as their own in the final weeks of the season.
These teams know each other so well that the series is likely to be very, very tight. When the Fever and Liberty meet it’s usually a slugfest of a game, very physical and intense throughout. Both teams build their identity from their defense, but play systems that are visibly very different on the floor. New York head coach John Whisenant brought his White Line defense with him when he took over the Liberty, and it involves a lot of fronting in the post and overplaying, expecting weak side help to come across if the opponent manages to make a pass over the fronting defender. It took the Liberty quite some time to adapt to his instructions, but as the season’s worn on they’ve gotten better at it. The problem is that it’s a physically demanding, energy-sapping system that sometimes leaves them looking tired at the end of games or with little strength left to use on offense.
Indiana have their Fire & Ice defense (my name, still waiting for it to catch on) which hedges high with as much energy as possible and traps on-ball screens, especially on either sideline. They also double-down a lot in the post, but if New York’s guards can hit shots after kick outs or rotate the ball well enough to the weak side, they may have to ease up on that against the Liberty. It’s not necessarily worth double-teaming players like Kia Vaughn and Quanitra Hollingsworth in the post if you’re leaving Cappie Pondexter or Essence Carson extra space as a result.
Both these teams revolve around one key player, a central figure who will have to perform well for them to succeed in the playoffs. For New York, it’s Pondexter, and the way she’s played in the last couple of weeks undoubtedly has Liberty fans a little worried. She hasn’t had a great season in general by her own very high standards, but in the last six games she’s shot 24-89 for a miserable 27% from the field. If it was down to the ankle sprain she suffered against Chicago, maybe the days off she’s had since the season ended on Sunday will have helped. If it’s just a slump, she needs to break out of it quickly. The Liberty offense isn’t the smoothest running machine known to man, and it relies a lot on Pondexter creating shots for herself and for others. Especially in fourth quarters, where they tend to drop into the LeBron-in-Cleveland style of standing around and watching her try to make something happen. Carson’s done a decent job of filling in on occasion, and she’s averaged over 16 points in the four games against Indiana this year, but Pondexter’s always the first option. They need her to lead the way if they’re going to beat the Fever, and they’ll need her even more in the later rounds if they can fight their way through this one.
For Indiana, as ever, Tamika Catchings is the driving force. She’s back to leading them in nearly every statistical category this year, as the playmaking responsibilities fell more heavily on her (and Katie Douglas) after Briann January blew out her knee in June. Erin Phillips has done a creditable job filling in for January, but she’s more of a scorer than a distributor so the balance of the offense has changed. Catchings’s offense has become more potent as the season has progressed, her improved accuracy from outside making her far more dangerous. She’ll still need scoring help from the likes of Douglas, Phillips and Jessica Davenport, but if she’d carried on shooting as she did to start the season, it’s unlikely that the Fever would’ve finished top of the Eastern Conference in the first place.
Catchings leads the Fever in rebounding as well, partly because the rest of her frontcourt has been so weak on the glass most of the year. Tangela Smith has been either poor or inconsistent in her first season in Indiana, depending on how generous you want to be, and the Tammy Sutton-Brown/Jessica Davenport combo at center doesn’t exactly dominate the glass either. Up against Vaughn, Hollingsworth, Plenette Pierson and an occasional burst of Kara Braxton, Catch is going to need at least a little help from that group in this series. I don’t expect Indiana to win the rebounding battle, but they need to at least keep it vaguely close.
While I expect her desperation for a ring to inspire additional effort in the postseason, Catchings has looked a little tired late in the season. The night off head coach Lin Dunn gave her at the end of the year wasn’t just because losing the game was a reasonable idea – Catch needed it as well. So with both Catchings and Pondexter potentially a little below their best, the series could come down to whose supporting cast can step up and make shots. For Catchings, that primarily means Katie Douglas, who started off the season on fire before disappearing in a horrible cold stretch for much of the second half of the season. She’s emerged again lately, and if the aggressive, looking-for-her-shot Katie shows up for this series, she could win the Fever a game on her own. It’ll force the Liberty perimeter players to work harder defensively as well, potentially Pondexter depending on which lineups the coaches favour, which can only help Indiana. After Douglas, it’s been a wait-and-see policy for Indiana all year, hoping that someone will show up on any given night. Phillips can light up from outside or drive for layups, Shavonte Zellous can sometimes be a sparkplug off the bench, and Davenport will once again be facing her old team in a playoff series. Like Douglas, Davenport started the season extremely well, but after taking Sutton-Brown’s starting spot away she lost it again and has barely been seen since. If she can rediscover some form in this series it could be huge, because she’s really too big for Kia Vaughn to deal with. That would force New York to go to Hollingsworth or even Braxton to defend her, and the Liberty won’t want to have to do that in crunch time. Time for Big Jessica to step up.
Pondexter’s supporting players haven’t been the most consistent group this year either. Pierson has had a good season, and her grit and toughness were made for a series like this. Expect her to get tangled up with someone in the paint at least three or four times before the winner is decided. But they need her offense as well. Both Pierson and Vaughn give the Libs the ability to score either inside or from midrange, and Pierson’s physicality should give her the edge over Tangela Smith when the starting lineups are on the floor. If Pierson performs as well as she can, the Fever may be forced into lineups with Catchings at power forward whether they like it or not, just to put someone at the 4 who can defend her. After that, it’s once again the hope that enough players will step up on any given night. Sometimes Carson can be an equal threat to Pondexter, if her shot happens to be dropping; sometimes Leilani Mitchell rediscovers the three-point shot that was falling remarkably well last season; sometimes Kara Braxton manages to score before her brain gets in the way and she turns the ball over – but none of these things are reliable. The inconsistencies on both sides are central to what makes this series so unpredictable.
Matchup to watch: Nicole Powell vs. herself
Powell was supposed to be Pondexter’s main offensive support when the Liberty acquired her in the dispersal draft from Sacramento before the 2010 season, but it’s never quite worked out. Her shooting – the main reason she’s on the floor to begin with – has been hit or miss (with rather too much miss), leaving the likes of Pierson and Carson to surpass her in importance for the Liberty’s offense. But her supporters will point to her career playoff averages, which are significantly higher than her regular season numbers, suggesting she’s been known to step up when required. Sometimes her head seems to get in her own way, and she thinks too much about what’s going on around her. Maybe the extra intensity of the playoffs forces her to forget everything and just play (although it didn’t help much last year).
Powell’s performance is especially important to this series because of Catchings. When she doesn’t have to worry too much about her own defensive matchup, Catchings roams around creating havoc for everyone else. She’ll double-team and trap at will, even more than usual, safe in the knowledge that if the ball somehow gets reversed to her man it’s not that big of a deal anyway. So if Powell shows the confidence to take big shots, and indicates that she’s actually going to hit them, she’ll force Catchings to stay at home and make everyone else’s life easier. Or, if the Fever are going small with Catch at the four, achieve exactly the same thing with Douglas. If Powell’s as invisible as she has been for much of the regular season, she’ll either be a passenger out there or find herself on the bench. Either way, it’s not much help to New York.
You’ve probably been able to pick up by now – I kind of think this series is a crapshoot. Play it ten times, both sides would win at least four. Forced to choose, for me it comes down to the slightly greater faith I have in Catchings to produce than I have in Pondexter. Cappie needs her shot to be falling to be effective, and her recent performances plus Indiana’s pressure defense don’t fill me with confidence that it will be in this series. Catchings may have looked a touch tired lately, but I expect her desire to finally win a championship to overcome that – and she can be a menace even if her perimeter shooting isn’t flowing. Assuming Phillips’s ankle sprain has largely recovered, I expect her to tear Leilani Mitchell to pieces as well, forcing New York into pushing Pondexter to the point. That hasn’t gone too well on several occasions this season, either making Pondexter too passive while she tries to create for others, or stalling the offense entirely while teammates watch her bring the ball up and wait for her to shoot.
At the same time, Douglas could go back into her shell, Catch could’ve already run out of steam, and Cappie’s ankle might have stopped bothering her – leading to a 25p.p.g. average in the series and a straightforward sweep. Your guess is as good as mine. But seeing as I’m the one with the website:
Indiana 2-1, with at least one overtime game.