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. Catch fought for deep position on Powell in the paint, took the entry pass and converted the layup with her left hand for her first basket – five minutes into the game, and she’d already matched her production from Game 2. Barely a minute later, she drove right past Powell for another left-handed finish at the rim. This was clearly a Catchings determined not to let the accuracy of her jump shot – or lack thereof – determine the result. She was going to force things to happen more directly. Pondexter, on the other hand, missed two early jump shots, forcing up the second one when an offensive rebound gave her another chance. New York coach John Whisenant replaced her with Essence Carson less than five minutes into the game (although she was back in soon afterwards). It was an inauspicious start for the player New York rely on to lead the way.

In terms of overall team production, Indiana seemed in control of the first quarter, but it wasn’t being heavily reflected on the scoreboard. The Fever were playing with the passion and desire that you expect in a do or die game, harassing the Liberty with their defense and pushing hard to score at the rim. New York started the game playing a little too quickly for their own good, and it was leading to turnovers and mistakes rather than easy scoring opportunities. But with Tammy Sutton-Brown and Tangela Smith both wasting opportunities inside the Fever weren’t pulling away. With Powell converting a couple of nice shots late in the period and Pondexter following up with a three for her first points of the game, the score was tied at 17-17 at the end of the first.

There was a little flashpoint just before we hit that break between quarters, with Powell and Catchings both ending up on the ground in the fight for a rebound. Whose fault the fall was probably depended on your favoured team/player, but Catchings was not happy afterwards and was quickly restrained by teammates from going after Powell. The refs gave them both technicals to calm things down, and everyone got on with the game. This was real playoff basketball, and tensions were high.

Just for a change (that’s sarcasm, for any new readers out there), with Shannon Bobbitt in to start the second quarter Indiana gave up a run to the opposition. Fever coach Lin Dunn wasn’t helping because Leilani Mitchell was clearly the only Liberty player she could guard – but Dunn had no problem putting her into games during this series whether Mitchell was on the floor or not. Out there against a Pondexter/Essence Carson backcourt, she’s completely overmatched, and three Liberty baskets opened the second quarter before Dunn called a timeout and put Erin Phillips back out in her place. From then on it was more of the same – hard-nosed, hard-fought playoff basketball. No quarter asked and none given, especially by Catchings who was flying around all over the floor. New York were still giving up unnecessary turnovers with poorly placed passes, but they were also creating better offense by this stage. When they kept the ball, they were finding points in the paint on drives and cuts, which kept them right in the game. The Indiana offense was crisper and when Douglas joined in by starting to hit from outside it increased their output but the score remained close.

The final exchanges of the first half went in Indiana’s favour. Catchings won the fight for a defensive rebound with Quanitra Hollingsworth, and was fouled after claiming possession of it. With New York in the penalty, that sent her to the line to put the Fever in front by two. Active defense – and Pondexter giving up the ball when she probably should’ve taken responsibility herself – led to a shot clock violation by the Liberty, and handed the ball back to Indiana. After Sutton-Brown missed a jumper, once again Catchings won the fight for the board, tipping the ball out and keeping the possession alive. Phillips drove, drew a foul, and went to the line to add another couple of points with 21 seconds left in the half. Then once again New York ran out of time, and that last 21 seconds expired before they even got a shot in the air. This time Pondexter passed the ball off twice in the same possession rather than taking charge. The Fever headed to halftime up just 40-36, but those last few possessions gave the team and the crowd a lift. The Fever fans have learned to love and appreciate defense over the years, and holding the opposition without a shot for their final 45 seconds with the ball impressed them just as much as any points at the other end would have. Pondexter being so painfully passive was obviously in Indiana’s favour as well.

Catchings hadn’t exactly set the world on fire with 3-7 shooting for 10 points in the first half, but her activity and energy was leading the team and was a stark contrast to her lifeless Game 2. Meanwhile, Pondexter was 2-5 for five points at the break, and New York were still waiting for her to impose herself. Maybe if she had, they would’ve avoided some of the 13 turnovers they committed in the first half.

The Fever carried their energy from the end of the first half into the second, opening the third quarter with a 9-0 run. It included a Catchings drive for a layup; a Phillips pullup jumper; a Whisenant timeout to try to stop the rot; Phillips stealing the inbounds pass after the timeout for an immediate layup; and Douglas drilling a three right over the top of Pondexter after Cappie had forced up a brick at the other end. Barely two and a half minutes into the second half, Indiana had a 13-point lead at 49-36 and New York looked in trouble. Pondexter was caught between a rock and a hard place. Her team needed her to take over, to start taking the shots and leading their scoring efforts – the passive version of Cappie that kept passing the ball off late in the first half was going to take them nowhere. But her shooting’s been off for weeks. Taking lots of shots wasn’t going to help her team if she couldn’t hit any of them – although it would’ve been nice to see her break down opponents off the dribble a little more and look to get to the basket. If you can’t hit anything from outside, get to the rim and create something easier, or force the refs to make a call. She didn’t seem too interested in doing that either.

Indiana just about managed to survive another passage of Bobbitt at the point – their offense stagnated as usual, but New York couldn’t score either, so it didn’t hurt too much – only for the Liberty to put a little run together to end the third quarter. Pondexter jacked another three that never had a chance, but the long rebound led to a Kara Braxton layup when the ball was reentered. Then after Pondexter was knocked hard to the floor by an illegal Jessica Davenport screen, she responded with an actual drive, drawing a whistle and heading to the line. The two foul shots brought New York within 54-48 at the end of the third, and they were within range in a game that looked like it might be slipping away earlier in the period. The one piece of good news for the Fever was that Catchings was still on the floor. After an awful call by official Sue Blauch, Catchings had responded pretty strongly and on another night might’ve picked up her second technical. Fortunately, the referees held back (as they usually do when they know the player already has one tech on her from earlier in the night). The last thing we needed was an ejection deciding the game.

This was still a tough, hard-fought game going into the fourth, as it should be with both teams’ seasons on the line. New York kept staying close, but couldn’t hit the shots to sneak in front. Dunn made the bizarre decision to introduce rookie Jeanette Pohlen for her first minutes all night with seven minutes left in the game and the score at 55-52, but she got away with it and the gap was actually a point bigger when Douglas replaced her 90 seconds later.

The energy, desire, and effectiveness of their superstar all seemed to be greater for Indiana in the closing stages of the game. They were playing with speed and targeted aggression, whereas the Liberty seemed to be drifting a little, even with five minutes to go in a five-point game that could end their season. There were so many possessions where Pondexter was standing on the weak side watching her teammates participate in the offense, and with 4:30 left when she did spring out to receive a pass and took a pullup baseline jumper from around 12 feet, it was woefully short. At the other end, even if Catchings wasn’t the one making the key feed or taking the shot, she was always involved. It was always her fighting for the rebound, or getting a fingertip to a New York pass to disrupt their offense. On the Fever possession that followed that Pondexter miss, Douglas was forced into an effort from distance to beat the shot clock, but Tangela Smith ran down the long rebound and called timeout before she fell out of bounds. After the inbounds, Catchings drove and kicked to Phillips for the baseline jumper, then it was Catch again diving on the ground for the loose rebound and calling timeout before anyone could wrap her up for a jump ball. On the play that followed that stoppage, Catchings curled up from the baseline, took a pass, and buried a three over Powell. With just three and a half minutes left, the Fever were up eight and the Conseco crowd were starting to believe it was almost done.

The next couple of possessions confirmed that belief. Pondexter once again gave up the ball rather than creating herself, leaving Mitchell to miss a three, then Catchings outfought Braxton for an offensive board and laid in the putback to push the lead to double-digits. She even turned around and sprinted back down court to get a finger on Pondexter’s outlet pass to Powell. The game was up, and with Cappie dancing down the lane and throwing up a half-hearted effort as she drifted away from contact on the next play there was extra confirmation. We went through the typical parade of fouls and free throws over the closing minutes as New York went through the motions of fighting until the end, but the chance was gone. Indiana ran out 72-62 winners, and will host Game 1 of the Eastern Finals against Atlanta on Thursday night.

After the excellent performance in Game 2 to force this finale, and some effort and fight in the second and third quarters to keep this game competitive, New York slid out of the playoffs with barely a whimper in the last few minutes. That’s what was most disappointing. Pondexter finished 4-14 on the night for 11 points, and never did get going in the series. Katie Douglas and the Indiana defense has to be given credit for making things difficult for her, but we’ve seen Cappie take over against any defender the World has to offer. Something just seemed off – and not only her jumper. I hate reducing games to something so abstract, especially when winning usually comes down to talent and performance, but Indiana seemed to want it more. The whole game was played with playoff intensity, but the Fever maintained it better. For New York, the intensity seemed to vary from player to player, quarter to quarter, even possession to possession. Maybe it’s because Indiana are a more veteran team – they know their window is closing, whereas Cappie’s already won a couple of championships in Phoenix, and figures she’ll have plenty more chances. Catchings’s are running out.

Considering I called ‘Nicole Powell vs. herself’ a key matchup in my preview of this series, credit has to be given to her for showing up. She didn’t have a great Game 1 offensively, but the work rate was there from her throughout the series and she found her shot in the final two games, ending Game 3 6-11 for 19 points. The Liberty fans might like her more if she could play like this more often during the regular season.

Indiana earned this win. Even without any of their post players performing offensively on the night, Catchings and Douglas stepped up just like they’re supposed to and dragged their team over the line. Catch finished with 17 points on 6-13 from the floor, Douglas 21 on 7-15. The extra energy, effort and activity – along with the greater willingness from their key players to drive to the basket and force the officials to make calls – sent the Fever to the free throw line 25 times. New York only shot nine times at the stripe all night, and the difference was key to the result. Now Indiana face Atlanta, who swept them in the regular season. McCoughtry vs. Catchings will draw all the headlines, but if the likes of Douglas and Phillips can produce like they did in this series they’ll give the Fever a chance. Home court advantage and the Dream’s starting center heading for South America after Game 1 won’t hurt, either.


That’s it for today, as your WNBAlien chief writer isn’t feeling great and feels he needs his full strength to tackle that wild Phoenix-Seattle Game 3. We’ll cover both Western Game 3s in tomorrow’s column.


Today’s Games (already completed):

San Antonio @ Minnesota, Game 3 (series tied 1-1), 8pm ET


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