WNBA Today, 09/20/2012: Injury question marks linger as Eastern leaders complete season series

Just one WNBA game last night, and sadly it would’ve been a lot more interesting if it had taken place a few weeks earlier. It was the final clash of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and the first time Connecticut and Indiana had faced each other since June. However, at this stage, the game meant virtually nothing. The teams were already locked in as the #1 and #2 seeds respectively in the East, so the only thing left to play for was home-court advantage against certain Western opponents in theoretical WNBA Finals matchups next month. Plus any small mental edge a win over your closest Eastern rival might create.

Indiana were the more cautious team, although they probably didn’t have much choice. The starting Fever backcourt of Briann January and Shavonte Zellous both took hard knocks in their previous game against Minnesota, and had gone home to rest and be assessed for concussion symptoms. Hopefully that’s precautionary, and they’ll both be available for the playoffs. Erin Phillips and Jeanette Pohlen moved into the starting lineup. Connecticut had Danielle McCray missing due to a sprained MCL, but continued to use even some banged up players, with both Tina Charles (groin) and Allison Hightower (wrist) playing through pain. They also had Asjha Jones back from her achilles injury and ready to play for the first time since the Olympics, although Mistie Mims continued to start at power forward.

While there was some limiting of minutes as the night wore on, especially by the Fever, neither team seemed to hide any quirks of their systems for a potential Eastern Conference Finals. Presumably they feel like they know each other so well by this point that there’s little point in keeping things under wraps. Rather than staying pure vanilla, both team used multiple defenses within the first quarter. Indiana opened in their standard man-to-man, switching constantly, and including the baseline double-teams which Tina Charles would have to deal with throughout a playoff series. Then we saw their 2-3 zone, which is flexible enough to sometimes look like a 3-2, when one corner defender rotates up high enough to challenge on the wing. Connecticut had their base man-to-man (which tries not to switch as often as Indiana’s), but also showed their bizarrely flexible defense where everyone seems to float, which is hard to define as a man-to-man or zone. They’ve used that mostly when going small with McCray at power forward in previous games, but tried it with standard lineups against Indiana. Both teams spent a lot of time in basic 2-3 zones as the night wore on, saving energy and keeping things simple.

Connecticut were on top to varying degrees for most of the night. Indiana struggled to contain Charles in the paint, as you’d expect when the switching defense often leaves smaller defenders trying to handle her. The Fever are smart and quick enough to send help when it’s necessary, but Connecticut are also sharp enough to see the mismatches and get the ball to Charles as quickly as possible. Kara Lawson also had another impressive shooting night, knocking down a series of jumpers in the first half. Containing her will be key for Indiana if these two meet again in the postseason.

Offensively, Indiana had a tough time in the first half. Without being able to slow Connecticut down with their defense there were few transition opportunities, and the shot clock kept running down while the Fever stagnated. The one thing that did work occasionally – and which Connecticut would have to be concerned about in a playoff series – was the drive and kick to open shooters in the corners. Whichever of their defenses is being utilised, the corner defenders for the Sun tend to get pulled in by penetration, wanting to dig in and crowd the space to help their posts prevent the drive. But some shooters you just can’t leave. For example, if you’re Kara Lawson, and your assignment is Katie Douglas, you’re much better off staying home on Douglas while your teammates handle the penetration, rather than sliding inside. Because when the ball gets kicked to an open Douglas, that’s a pretty high percentage look at a three. Douglas’s perimeter shooting was the main thing that kept Indiana remotely in this game in the first half, as she went 4-5 from beyond the arc and had 16 points by the break. Connecticut led 38-27.

Asjha Jones played a total of 5:17 across two stints in the first half. She made an immediate impact with an offensive rebound and putback, and seemed to be moving fairly smoothly. Hopefully the fact that she didn’t play in the second half was purely down to easing her back slowly, and not because she was feeling the injury.

With the regular season winding down and Indiana already missing key players, this game never had the intensity of the Minnesota-Indiana matchups last week. But that didn’t mean the Fever were just going to quit. The Sun lead reached 17 early in the third quarter, only for Tamika Catchings to impose herself on the game and make it a contest again. She scored eight straight points on a pretty low-post turnaround over Charles, a cut and finish off a nice pass from Erlana Larkins, a drive for a layup, and another drive which drew a foul and subsequent free throws. You somehow feel that Catch has no other way to play besides all-out, 100% effort. In fact, when she barreled in for yet another layup a few minutes later, Fever head coach Lin Dunn decided she’d seen enough when Catchings came away limping slightly. That was the end of the night for Indiana’s star.

Without January and Zellous, Douglas had also been endeavouring to carry the offense and drive a little more than usual, with some success. But her night was done at the end of the third quarter despite Connecticut still leading 57-44. Saving her key players and ensuring there were no more injuries was far more important to Dunn than the possibility of a comeback.

Then she got the comeback anyway. The Fever played virtually the entire fourth quarter with a lineup of Phillips, Pohlen, Karima Christmas, Sasha Goodlett and Jessica Davenport. They played a lot of 2-3 zone, and Connecticut threw up a lot bricks from Lawson and Renee Montgomery trying to shoot over it. Offensively, Indiana attacked the glass, and rookie Goodlett reminded Dunn that she has yet another option to turn to in the post if the first few don’t work. She was the only player scoring consistently in the fourth quarter, mostly at the rim, although she tossed in a nice 15-foot jumper to show off her range as well. Her fourth bucket of the period, with under 2 minutes to play, drew Indiana within 70-65.

Davenport, who’d done a lot better against Charles in the fourth quarter than she had in the first half, was called for a travelling violation on Indiana’s next possession which put a severe dent in the comeback effort. Lawson missed another three at the other end, but Hightower tracked down the offensive rebound, Montgomery penetrated and kicked to give Lawson another chance, and this time she made no mistake. That iced it, and the Sun held on for a 73-67 victory.

It’s hard to take too much from this game, with little at stake and neither team playing flat out. Should they meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, Connecticut will be hoping that Jones is fit enough to play a lot more than five minutes, and Indiana would hope to have January and Zellous available. But there were still hints of what both teams need to do. When their defense created turnovers and sped up the game, as it did far more in the second half, Indiana pose a much greater threat. And while they’ll inevitably shoot a lot of threes – they’ve been doing that all season – they have to attack the rim to balance their attack and keep the defense honest. Connecticut can’t go passive against zone defense, and just keep firing up shots from outside. Occasionally they’ll get hot, but more often than not it just results in a lot of long rebounds. When Lawson and Hightower pushed the pace in the first half and they played without thinking, they were in complete control of the game. Plus Tina Charles saw a lot more of the ball. Defending her isn’t an easy task for Indiana, and the Sun need to constantly make use of that fact.

All of which, of course, will be completely moot unless they both win in the first-round of the playoffs.

 

Notes

Certain parts of the playoff schedule have been confirmed by the teams. The LA-San Antonio series will start on Thursday September 27th, but Game 1 will be at USC’s Galen Center, not the Sparks’ usual home court at the Staples Center (due to a schedule clash with Batman Live). Game 2 is in San Antonio on the 29th, with Game 3 (if necessary) back at Staples on October 1st. The Minnesota-Seattle series will start on the 28th at the Target Center in Minneapolis, go to Seattle for Game 2 on the 30th, and then back to Minnesota for Game 3 (if necessary) on October 2nd. The Eastern schedule apparently still depends on whether New York or Chicago take the 4th spot, so could well be confirmed later tonight.

 

Upcoming Games

Thursday September 20th (today):

New York @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET

Minnesota @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET

—–

Friday September 21st (tomorrow):

Indiana @ Washington, 7pm ET

Minnesota @ Phoenix, 10pm ET

San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET

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