Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 22-12) vs. Atlanta Dream (#3 seed, 19-15)
Regular season series: Indiana won, 3-2
05/19 @Ind: Fever 92-84
05/27 @Atl: Fever 78-62
06/26 @Atl: Dream 70-58
08/18 @Ind: Fever 86-72
09/05 @Atl: Dream 71-64
Where the other Eastern matchup might be the easiest pick in the first round, this is probably the toughest. Despite making the big, dangerous decision to move star player Tamika Catchings from small forward to power forward for this season, the Fever have had a strong year. There’ve been a few hiccups along the way, and they play a rather different style from what we’ve grown used to over the years, but they’ve continued to win games. In fact, most of the advanced numbers (points per possession both offensively and defensively, pythagorean expected wins/losses etc.) make Indiana – not Connecticut – the top team in the East this season. But after all the confusion and controversy in Atlanta around the exit of Marynell Meadors and the absence/suspension of Angel McCoughtry, the Dream have settled into a threatening looking unit. They look like a team again, have played well over the last month, and they’ve reached the WNBA Finals from a low seed in each of the last two seasons. Can you bet against them doing it again?
In the past, this matchup would’ve been all about pace – and frankly that’s still a central element. What’s changed is that Indiana aren’t quite as pedestrian and plodding any more. They’ll run if you give them the chance, using their own defense to create transition chances, and they’ve grown very fond of the three-point shot. In fact, while both of these teams play tough, aggressive defense – Atlanta were 1st, Indiana 3rd in the WNBA this season in defensive points per possession – the style of scoring is where we’ll see the greatest contrast. While Indiana do get some penetration from Catchings, Katie Douglas and their guards, and some occasional post offense from backups like Jessica Davenport, a lot of their offense comes on perimeter shots. They generate them via drive-and-kicks or solid ball rotation, and fire away.
Atlanta still don’t have the firepower to play like that. Whenever they can, they’ll dive into passing lanes and poke away balls to create transition offense. When they can’t, they’ll still be looking to drive and penetrate at every opportunity. McCoughtry, Tiffany Hayes and Lindsey Harding will shoot from outside on occasion, but they’re usually better off turning down those chances, and Sancho Lyttle is almost always better advised to turn them down. Backup forward Cathrine Kraayeveld is really their only reliable three-point shooter (Laurie Koehn doesn’t count, seeing as she’ll probably never play). Indiana will, of course, pack the paint and try to dare Atlanta to beat them from outside. But teams have been doing that to the Dream for years, and they’ve won a lot of games regardless.
Unfortunately, health could be a key factor in this series. Atlanta played half the season without starting center Erika de Souza as she trained with Brazil for the Olympics, then had the mess with McCoughtry, but are now in one piece. Also, unlike last year, no one will be leaving the country during the playoffs (de Souza had Olympic qualifiers during the 2011 WNBA postseason). Indiana aren’t so lucky. Douglas missed a couple of games at the end of the season due to illness, but should be fine. Less likely to be ready for Game 1 are starting guards Briann January and Shavonte Zellous, who both took knocks to the head during a game against Minnesota 10 days ago and are yet to be cleared to play due to concussion symptoms. The Fever have decent understudies in Erin Phillips and Jeanette Pohlen, but that would force even greater responsibility onto Catchings and Douglas to both run the offense and provide the bulk of the scoring. Also, with January and Zellous playing, Indiana had an advantage with their depth in this series. Atlanta don’t have many people they can rely on beyond their starting five. If the starting Fever backcourt is out, that Indiana edge disappears.
There are several other key areas in this matchup between teams that are very similar in some aspects, yet startlingly different in others:
a) Rebounding/Size. Indiana have been going ‘small’ all year with Catchings starting at power forward. It leaves them undersized in the paint, but her aggression and activity, along with that of Erlana Larkins off the bench, has gone a long way to covering up the issues that can cause. It also allows her to create from the perimeter while being guarded by players who don’t usually want to chase her out that far. But if Atlanta can feed de Souza in the paint, and if they can get Lyttle to play down low rather than constantly firing away from 15-feet and out, the Dream can create an advantage inside. Even if they don’t constantly score down there, dropping the ball down, drawing the double-team, then kicking out to wide open scorers should help as well. On the glass, Indiana will need a team effort to compete, and if Davenport and Tammy Sutton-Brown can’t get the job done, Larkins will increasingly see minutes at center. But while she’s a better rebounder, she’s much shorter than Davenport or Sutton-Brown – which again opens up opportunities for Atlanta’s posts to score. If January and Zellous are out, we may see Indiana go back to some more traditional lineups, with Catchings at the 3, Larkins at 4, and one of the centers out there as well. But expect the Fever to start with what’s worked all year, and only change it up if they absolutely have to.
b) Turnovers. Atlanta need to create them. Yes, they’ve improved in their half-court execution and attack, but the Dream’s energy feeds off creating steals, then getting out on the break for easy points. However, Indiana have been the best team in the league this season at preventing teams from scoring off turnovers. They take care of the ball, and they’re good at getting back in transition to cover or challenge whenever they do cough it up. Again, the injuries could be an issue. Removing January and Zellous takes away two primary ballhandlers for Indiana, even if Catchings and Douglas often run much of the offense. The Fever either need the usual starters back, or they need Phillips and Pohlen to step up their game and be just as careful with the ball as the players they’re replacing. Avoiding turnovers is absolutely crucial against the Dream.
c) Free throws. Atlanta lead the league in free throw attempts, as a result of their constant driving and McCoughtry’s outstanding ability to get to the line. Indiana trail only Connecticut in free throw shooting percentage, because there’s scarcely a single weak foul shooter on their roster. Atlanta will likely shoot more, but they won’t necessarily make more in this series.
Matchup to watch: McCoughtry vs. Catchings
Yes, going with the blindingly obvious one this time. Playoff series are often decided by how well the respective superstars perform. With Catchings’s move to power forward, they probably won’t be assigned to cover each other very much, but with how much freelancing they both do defensively they’ll collide pretty frequently. Catchings has continued to do it all for her team this year, and the move to a new position barely disrupted her in the slightest. McCoughtry obviously had her issues, but she’s slid back into the team unit impressively since all was forgiven. Sidekicks like Harding, Lyttle, Douglas and January have had their moments this season, and will be important in this series, but these are the two everyone will be looking at to step up and lead their teams to the Eastern Finals.
Summary and Prediction
For no particularly explicable reason, this series reminds me of Seattle-Phoenix last year. Every reasonable factor said Seattle ought to win the series, including their long run of dominance over the Mercury. So I picked them, even though something was telling me the Storm were going to blow it. And they did. While the season-long stats favour Indiana for this series, a lot of factors say Atlanta should be the pick. The injury issues around January and Zellous; the history of Atlanta’s playoff success from low seeds; the size and bulk advantage they’ve got in the paint; even the soap opera storyline of dumping their coach late in the season and then coming together as a group. But something in my gut says Indiana. I think they’re one of the best placed teams in the WNBA to handle Atlanta’s high-pressure defense without capitulating, even if they have to rely on Phillips rather than January to duel with Harding at the point. I think Catchings can give the Dream problems, despite the athleticism and mobility of defenders like Lyttle and McCoughtry. And I think if they start making enough threes, some of Atlanta’s scorers might get dragged into a shooting match, which the Dream have very little chance of winning. So maybe I’ve just got indigestion, but…
Indiana 2-1, in a heck of a series.