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. In fact, the referees called two Delay of Game violations on Indiana in the first 78 seconds (the first a warning, the second a technical foul), suggesting Atlanta had probably complained to the league about the Fever interfering with the ball after made baskets. So there was one method of slowing the Dream down they couldn’t use any more. The Fever were right in the game early on because Douglas, Zellous and Tammy Sutton-Brown were making shots, but there was no way they’d beat the Dream in a game played like this – Atlanta’s athletes are just better at playing run-and-gun basketball. Still, Indiana led 15-11 when Catchings made her entrance four minutes into the game, drawing the inevitable ovation from the home crowd. She looked reasonably mobile, but most of her early shots came up short, suggesting a lack of lift from her legs that was only to be expected. Either because her team were looking to her too much for their offense, or simply because the pace of the game finally told, Atlanta dominated the rest of the opening period. They were breaking off every loose ball or turnover, driving into the paint on breaks or in the halfcourt, and the Fever once again couldn’t deal with them. Castro Marques twice went flying past Catchings for finishes at the rim, and by the end of the first quarter she already had 10 points and Atlanta led 28-23.
The Indiana offense ground to a halt early in the second quarter, but the style of the basketball game started to inch back in their favour. They couldn’t score against Atlanta’s quick, pressuring defense, but they weren’t turning the ball over, and the game had slowed to a crawl. It was now a physical battle in the paint, rather than the end-to-end shootout of the first period, and even though a McCoughtry three midway through the period took Atlanta 35-26 in front it felt more like the kind of game the Fever had a chance to win.
Indiana had narrowed the score to 36-30 when the most extraordinary moment of the first half occurred with three and a half minutes left to the break. After a series of Douglas offensive rebounds had kept a Fever possession alive, Phillips drove and was fouled by McCoughtry on her way to the rim. It was only her second, but with the foul trouble McCoughtry’s struggled with in several games against Indiana this season (and throughout the playoffs), Dream coach Marynell Meadors decided to take her out. Except Angel didn’t want to go. Coco Miller came on court to replace her, and McCoughtry just stood on the court shaking her head, not going anywhere. Eventually, after the refs pointed out that six players on the court was a little unfair (and gave Atlanta remarkable leeway, considering how quick they’d been with the Delay of Game tech against Indiana to start the game), McCoughtry went to the bench. Of course, she had several words for her coach on her way there, although Meadors pointedly ignored her. It’s that kind of petulant, childish, self-important behaviour that turns a lot of people off in regards to McCoughtry, and if this was any other game she’d have been lucky to see the floor again for the rest of the night. She can call it competitiveness or desire all she likes – it often simply comes off as obnoxious.
The first half closed with an unlikely three-pointer from the corner by Dream backup post Sandora Irvin – 0-5 this season from beyond the arc, 6-31 in her WNBA career – before some nice ball movement from the Fever created a layup for Smith just before the buzzer. The second quarter had uglied up the game and made it a less entertaining spectacle for the neutral, but it had raised Indiana’s chances of pulling off the win. Despite Douglas shooting 4-12 for nine points, and Catchings 0-4 for zero in 10 minutes of action, the Fever trailed just 39-35 at halftime. That was with Atlanta shooting a very unusual 4-7 from three-point range in comparison to Indiana’s 1-8. The Dream had been the worst team in the league all year from outside – and they weren’t even remotely close to anyone else – so the odds looked good for Indiana that the perimeter shooting would swing back in their favour in the second half.
Unfortunately for the Fever, any instructions that coach Lin Dunn may have given them in the locker room went out the window in the early minutes of the third quarter. Indiana got off to a horrible start, taking bad shots and making poor passes. Both of those mistakes kill you against Atlanta, because if you miss badly they’ll run off the rebound, and if you give up turnovers they’ll run off the steal. You have to play smart against this team, and Indiana came out for the second half and played dumb. Dunn called a quick timeout after barely a minute, only for a Phillips airball to become a Price layup the other way, then Sutton-Brown to end their next possession with a weak three-second violation. The following Fever possession was even worse, as Douglas saw her layup attempt blocked at the rim by Lyttle, then couldn’t be bothered to run back and defend. That left Castro Marques wide open in the corner, and she nailed a three to take Atlanta 46-35 in front. Dunn was forced into another timeout, and we hadn’t even played three minutes of the second half.
Dunn brought Catchings into the game and replaced Phillips with Shannon Bobbitt at the point after growing tired of the Aussie’s ineffectiveness, but very little changed. Indiana couldn’t get the ball inside, and Atlanta were doing a good job of closing out on jump shots and making any effort from outside as difficult as possible. Catchings finally got off the mark with a breakout layup just after the midway point of the third quarter, but by that stage all it did was cut the score to 51-39. The game was starting to slip away from the Fever, and the quickness and aggression of the Dream defenders was creating repeated steals and fastbreak chances. Castro Marques drilled consecutive threes – so much for Atlanta cooling off from outside – and Dunn was forced into yet another timeout, now trailing 57-39 with over three minutes left in the third quarter. A series of baskets by backup center Jessica Davenport at least gave the Fever a little offense late in the period, but McCoughtry was repeatedly getting to the free throw line at the other end to answer. Atlanta still led 61-47 to close the third.
Briefly, it looked like Indiana might give themselves a chance in the fourth quarter. They managed a couple of steals to open the period, and a Catchings drive earned two free throws that cut the gap to 12. Unfortunately, just when it looked like we might have a grandstand finish, Catchings was called for a foul underneath the basket when she and McCoughtry got tied up off the ball. It was horrible call, and happened just after the Fever had forced a Castro Marques miss and grabbed the rebound. They would’ve been heading upcourt looking to narrow the gap even further, but instead Atlanta inbounded the ball, found Castro Marques in the corner, and she rained in yet another three. Then a hand-off from Phillips to Jeanette Pohlen went wrong, and became a Harding layup at the other end. From a game that might’ve been cut to ten or even nine points, Atlanta were suddenly back up by 17, and that was just about it.
The fight drizzled out of the Fever from that point, and apart from a circus layup by McCoughtry where she drove the baseline and hit a shot over her head while being fouled, there was little worth watching in the closing stages. It was hard to imagine that having Catchings at 100% would’ve made much difference in how the game played out, although obviously we’ll never know for sure. Atlanta coasted home for an 83-67 victory, and they’ll be heading out to Minnesota for Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday evening.
It was a valiant effort from Indiana, at least for the first half, but the third quarter killed them. They didn’t match the energy and aggression of the Dream in the opening minutes, then were left forcing passes and shots that just led to Atlanta points back the other way. Douglas shot 6-18 for 16 points, and her head seemed to be taken completely out of the game in that third quarter. With Catchings ailing and her teammates crying out for someone to lead them, Indiana needed a great game from Douglas and didn’t get it. Catchings played 24 minutes in the end, shooting 2-6 for six points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals. Her energy and effort was there, but it wasn’t enough to drag her team past an opponent that had more weapons and took control of the game. Maybe the Fever would’ve been better off if Erika de Souza had never left, because Meadors might never have stuck with the small lineup that gave them fits for such an extended period. Again, we’ll never know, but either way Catchings is yet again left thinking ‘maybe next year’ in her hunt for a WNBA title. The long wait for an MVP trophy finally came to an end this season; the ring continues to elude her.
Once again, with their big Brazilian missing, her compatriot stepped up for the Dream. Castro Marques played nearly 36 minutes, and shot 7-15 from the floor (including a remarkable 5-7 from three-point range) for 23 points. Who needs de Souza? After a year of abject ineptitude from beyond the arc, Atlanta finished 8-12 from outside as a team in the biggest game of their year so far, but other elements helped them pull this win out as well. Indiana have been great at getting to the line this year, but Atlanta have been even better and created a huge advantage in that area in this crucial game. The Fever were just 7-11 thanks to a lack of driving and solid defense from the Dream, while Atlanta were 21-33 at the line. That’s a pretty horrible 64% – McCoughtry was 11-19 on her own – but when you get there that many times you’ll add a whole lot of points even with an ugly percentage. Their defense gave Indiana fits all night, as Sancho Lyttle especially did an excellent job of fighting for position in the paint and using her quickness and long limbs to create turnovers. They’ll have more trouble in the WNBA Finals simply because Minnesota have more players who can shoot, but this was very good preparation. They’re going to need to close out well on shooters and make passing lanes as difficult to navigate as possible, and their efforts in those areas were far too much for Indiana to deal with in Game 3.
So it’s back to the best-of-five Finals for Atlanta for the second straight year, and once again they’ll be underdogs. WNBAlien will be previewing the series in depth over the next couple of days, so we’ll keep it brief here, but it should be an entertaining series. Both teams like to run, but both can also play aggressive, physical defense. Erika de Souza is expected back by Game 2, which will help the Dream against the Lynx, who possess far more of an interior threat than Indiana. In fact if the Dream continue to go small, it’ll be a very interesting Game 1 as we’ll see which end of the mismatch comes off worst, and who’s forced to switch up their approach to compensate. It’s going to be fascinating, and exciting, and I doubt you’ll see many people predicting another sweep before the series tips off on Sunday.
In other news…
Seattle point guard Sue Bird has had successful surgery on her right hip, repairing the torn labrum that she’d been playing through this season.
Meanwhile, a version of the USA team that Bird will likely be starting for at the Olympic Games next Summer set out on a European tour. While various players were left out of the squad due to injury, WNBA or European commitments, or simply not being invited, there were a couple of notable inclusions. Sophia Young is making her first appearance in a USA jersey, having gained US citizenship barely a month ago. Also, Cappie Pondexter has been included, after being the one healthy player in the huge national team pool omitted from the training squad that met up prior to the WNBA season. Pondexter messed USA Basketball around last year when she failed to commit to playing in the World Championships, then was embroiled in controversy over tweets about Japan later in the WNBA offseason. Considering their history with awkward personalities, it’s something of a surprise to see USA Basketball quite so willing to forgive and forget (more in regards to the lack of commitment to the Worlds than the Japan comments). Obviously they feel that she’s served her penance, or that she’s simply too exceptional a talent to ignore. Either way, her inclusion on this trip makes her presence at the Olympics next year look probable once again (assuming it doesn’t clash with Fashion Week somewhere else on the planet).
The FIBA Americas tournament is heading for semi-finals featuring Brazil-Cuba and Argentina-Canada on Friday. The final on Saturday decides the winner and one automatic qualifier for London 2012, while the other three semi-finalists will all enter the Olympic Qualifying Tournament before the Games next year (which currently looks like it will be held in either Turkey or the Czech Republic).
The FIBA Africa Championships are also currently taking place in Mali, with the quarter-finals on Friday. The hosts and Senegal have been the two strongest teams so far, and will be looking to secure the one automatic spot in London in the final on Sunday. Only second and third in this competition receive spots in the additional Qualifying Tournament.
WNBA Finals Schedule:
Sun Oct 2nd: Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8.30pm ET, live on ESPN
Wed Oct. 5th: Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2
Fri Oct 7th: Minnesota @ Atlanta, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2
Sun Oct. 9th: Minnesota @ Atlanta, 4pm ET, live on ESPN2 (if necessary)
Wed Oct. 12th: Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET, live on ESPN2 (if necessary)