#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. The fourth doesn’t really count, because Tamika Catchings was rested and Indiana didn’t particularly want to win on the last day of the regular season, but the other three certainly do. The telling element in all those wins is inevitably going to be key to this series as well – pace. Atlanta like to play up-tempo, end-to-end basketball. It suits their speedy players, and keeps them out of having to run halfcourt sets. It also leads to lots of finishes at the rim, which is where they need to be to win – seeing as the team basically can’t shoot. Indiana, on the other hand, don’t really run. They’ll take a fastbreak point or two if it’s sat there offering itself to them, but largely speaking they use their defense to slow opposition teams down in the halfcourt, and their offense is fairly methodical (or pedestrian, if you’re feeling less generous). The Fever’s problem in those regular season games was that they got sucked in to playing Atlanta’s game too easily, and the Dream are better at it. If Atlanta can make this into a speedy, fast-paced series, they’re instantly the favourites. But the playoffs tend to slow everything down, as games get more physical and every possession becomes intrinsically more valuable. Plus with teams able to focus on one opponent and prepare for exactly how they want to tackle the series, they can be more effective at slowing the game down (if that’s how they want to play it). That’s much easier to do for a playoff series than when you happen to run into a running team during the course of the regular season. It’s one of the reasons that the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns have never won an NBA title.
While Atlanta battled past Connecticut by shutting down Tina Charles, the Fever present rather different issues. Their post game is limited, to say the least. Tammy Sutton-Brown will finish at the rim if someone hands her the ball for a wide open layup, but that’s about it. Tangela Smith will take most of her shots from around the three-point line. The only real post offense the Fever will produce is from Catchings occasionally setting up down there, and Jessica Davenport off the bench. Which leaves the main offensive threats on the perimeter. Catchings had a rollercoaster series against New York, starting off hot in Game 1 before taking a hit to the head from Nicole Powell; looking exhausted in an awful Game 2; then leading the team through Game 3 with her heart and desire. She had solid numbers in all three games she played against the Dream this year, and won’t be remotely fazed by facing Angel McCoughtry, but they need the Catch from Games 1 and 3 to win this series. Half-a-Catch won’t get it done against this team. Fortunately for the Fever, Katie Douglas had a heck of a series against the Liberty. Having apparently snapped out of her quiet second half to the regular season, she was firing away from deep, driving when the option presented itself, and generally leading the Fever’s offensive attack. All while chasing Cappie Pondexter around at the other end. With that Katie Douglas working alongside Catchings, Indiana have a chance to beat anyone. Finally, Erin Phillips will start at point guard, and given how abominable backup Shannon Bobbitt has been lately better prepare herself for playing 35 minutes a night. She can knock down the big shot and provide an extra option to create offense, all while buzzing around as a defensive pest. She’s also lit Atlanta up for 21 points twice this season in three appearances against them, so apparently she has no problem with Lindsey Harding’s defense. Their matchup could be an interesting one to watch.
For the Dream, it’s going to be intriguing to see which version shows up. So many times this year they were led by the driving and gunning of Angel McCoughtry. But in the Eastern Conference semi-finals against Connecticut, she misfired and the Dream’s balance across their starting five carried them. Harding and Armintie Price took over the driving responsibilities with some assistance from Iziane Castro Marques off the bench, while Sancho Lyttle paired with Erika de Souza to shut down the paint defensively and add a few points themselves. Whether McCoughtry can get into the lane and force her way to the free throw line will be important to this series – especially as Catchings will be defending her most of the time and McCoughtry needs to keep her occupied – but Atlanta have more options these days. Other people who can produce. Indiana are likely screwed if Catchings isn’t her real self for the series; Atlanta might be able to win anyway with half-an-Angel.
What Atlanta choose to do defensively is also going to be interesting. After she suffered with foul trouble in the first two games against the Fever this season, the Dream switched McCoughtry away from Catchings in their third encounter. They moved McCoughtry over onto Tangela Smith – who has practically no post game and never drives – leaving Lyttle to chase Catchings around. After a series where Lyttle played a big part in closing off the paint, it’ll be fascinating to see if the Dream push her out onto Catchings on the perimeter to try to save McCoughtry – or if Angel takes on the challenge of guarding the Fever’s leader while staying out of foul trouble.
We can’t close out an examination of this series without mention of Atlanta’s impending difficulties. Erika de Souza is in Brazil’s squad for the FIBA Americas tournament that doubles as a qualifier for the Olympic Games next year. She’s expected in Colombia for their first game on Saturday. So although there’s been no official comment from the Dream, it looks like she’ll play Game 1 and then be lost for the rest of the series. Indiana’s more perimeter-oriented style of play means that it’s not as big an issue as losing her for the Connecticut series would’ve been. It obviously hurts to lose your starting center for the biggest games of the year, but Alison Bales has played pretty well lately and is a reasonable stand-in. It might also lead to small lineups for the Dream with McCoughtry at power forward and Castro Marques or Coco Miller coming in as an extra guard. Then we get to see whether Fever coach Lin Dunn responds with a big lineup to take advantage, or – more likely – goes small herself with Catchings at the 4 to match up. That would likely speed up the game, which would be in Atlanta’s favour for the reasons mentioned earlier. The final game of the Americas tournament is on October 1st, so de Souza could be back in time for the start of the WNBA Finals – if the Dream manage to advance without her.
Matchup to watch: Katie Douglas vs. Armintie Price
Catchings vs. McCoughtry is too obvious, and I already mentioned Harding vs. Phillips. This one is interesting because they’re so different, but both so effective. Price is a flyer, galloping from one end of the court to the other, and is a completely different proposition from Cappie Pondexter (who Douglas has just spent three games dealing with). Price doesn’t shoot much, but loves to get out on the break and wants to penetrate even when the Dream get caught in halfcourt sets. Douglas will be dropping off to close down lanes for her, but she’ll also have to work damn hard to get back in transition and limit breakout opportunities. At the other end, Douglas likes to shoot more than drive, and Price will be right up on her for most of the series (likely far tighter and far more effectively than Pondexter was). If she shuts Douglas down and the Fever become Catchings + parts, Indiana could be in trouble.
Damn this one is hard. Atlanta have already proven they can win on the road, beating Connecticut despite the Sun’s 15-2 regular season record in their own arena, so Indiana’s home court advantage is no guarantee of anything. But with an aging team, there were signs of desperation in the Fever during the closing stages of that New York series. The good kind of desperation, where you know your window is closing and you want to grab one of those last few chances to win a ring. With Douglas awake again, I think Indiana can just about pull this off, helped out by the Dream’s expected loss of de Souza after Game 1 (Bales has looked decent, but she alters their dynamic). I’m half expecting Atlanta to win Game 1 tonight, but then end up back in Indiana for Game 3 on Tuesday anyway, although I’ve got no intention of placing any money on that. Regardless of my unlikely success predicting the Eastern Conference this year.
Indiana 2-1 (but with very little confidence. And Atlanta 2-0 as my second choice).