Connecticut Sun (#1 seed, 25-9) vs. Indiana Fever (#2 seed, 22-12)
Regular season series: Sun won 3-1
06/08 @Ind: Sun 89-81
06/19 @Conn: Sun 88-85
06/21 @Ind: Fever 95-61
09/19 @Conn: Sun 73-67
While Atlanta always threatened a late run, these teams have been the top two in the Eastern Conference all season long. So it’s only fitting that they should be fighting it out for a place in the WNBA Finals. As with the West, the two contenders had contrasting paths through the first round. Connecticut finished off New York in two straight games and were done by Saturday night. Indiana dropped the opening game at home, shook up their starting lineup, and fought their way back to win a deciding game on Tuesday night. Now they travel to Connecticut for Game 1 of this series, where the Sun have been lying back and waiting for their opponents to show up all week.
Despite Connecticut finishing higher in the standings, most of the statistical categories gave Indiana the edge over the course of the regular season. Not by much, but the Fever were ahead in both offensive and defensive efficiency, among others, across the year. But these aren’t going to be quite the same teams that we saw in the regular season. Connecticut spent the second half of the year muddling through with fill-in options in the post alongside Tina Charles, while she also battled injuries. Now regular starter Asjha Jones is back from her achilles problem, and looked impressive in the series against the Liberty. Charles still has those injuries, and she’s had a few shaky rebounding games which the pain has likely contributed to, but most of the time she’s her typical MVP-level self both in the paint and with her mid-range jumper. Dealing with those two is going to be the highest priority for Indiana.
However, the Fever aren’t the same either. Indiana head coach Lin Dunn will likely start out the series with the lineup which served her so well against Atlanta, which isn’t quite the same as the group she relied on through the regular season. Erin Phillips came in at shooting guard for Shavonte Zellous, which added a little extra ballhandling to the mix (plus Phillips used to play for the Sun and took a while extricating herself from the franchise, so she might be particularly energised for this opponent). But the key change came at center, where Erlana Larkins replaced Tammy Sutton-Brown. That move gave Indiana energy and activity in the paint, along with a natural rebounder who makes up for her lack of height with effort and positioning. If Larkins plays the same heavy minutes again in this series, Connecticut will undoubtedly try to attack her and utilise their size advantage in the paint. But Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle had several inches on her as well, and couldn’t accomplish anything much once the Fever started using Larkins heavily inside. This could be where the series turns – Indiana need Larkins’s activity and rebounding on the floor, but if Connecticut can exploit her it could force Dunn to go bigger. Sutton-Brown or even Jessica Davenport may have to take up minutes at center to offer true size.
There’ll be plenty of action going on around the perimeter in this series as well. While the Fever found success against Atlanta by piercing their defense and repeatedly attacking the rim, they’ve spent the year firing up a huge number of jump shots from outside. They drive and kick through Tamika Catchings or Katie Douglas, or they rotate the ball quickly to find open shooters. Connecticut’s defense typically collapses quite a lot to cover penetration and close off the paint, which can leave them vulnerable to the three-pointer. They’ve got a host of perimeter options in Allison Hightower, Kalana Greene, Tan White, Kara Lawson, Renee Montgomery and Danielle McCray to throw at Indiana’s shooters, but they’re going to have to make sure they stay tight to them (or close out quickly if the defense has already rotated inside).
The Atlanta series was also something of a breakout party for point guard Briann January, who’s quietly had a strong season after returning from a serious knee injury. Her creation off the dribble combined with accuracy from outside was key to Indiana making it through the first round, and Hightower may well be tasked with trying to slow her down throughout this series. There’s also the question of whether Jones is healthy enough to cover Catchings, who’ll spend plenty of time creating from the perimeter with the ball in her hands. Atlanta had Lyttle, and typically Jones would be one of the other power forwards in the WNBA capable of covering Catchings all around the floor. But Jones has still only been back on the floor for a couple of weeks. Is the achilles strong enough yet?
At the other end, the primary outside threat for the Sun is Kara Lawson, although the other guards will chip in on occasion. Lawson’s been outstanding this year, shooting the lights out from outside while combining with Hightower to run the offense. Indiana will likely use a variety of defenders against her, including Douglas, Zellous and Phillips, to try to keep her under wraps. If the Fever pay too much attention to Jones and Charles, Lawson is the one most likely to make them pay.
Other key areas to watch in this series:
a) The zones. Indiana developed a combo-zone this season which looks like a 2-3 or a 3-2 at different times depending on where the wings slide to. They used it occasionally against Atlanta, who picked it apart in most of Game 1 before it tightened up and caused them some problems. The Sun have had some struggles against straightforward zone defenses this season. At times, they’ve ended up shifting the ball around the perimeter and then just trying to shoot over the top. That’s fine if you happen to make a couple and knock the opponent out of their zone, but it’s not a particularly efficient way to break it down. They need to use the gaps at the high-post and along the baseline if Indiana throw the zone at them for extended periods, otherwise it could lead to scoring slumps for the Sun. The return of Jones ought to make them much better at that, but the Liberty don’t play any zone defense so we never had the chance to see in the first round. Connecticut also have a couple of zones of their own, a standard 2-3 and a bizarre multi-switching thing that’s hard to categorise. Sun head coach Mike Thibault typically spends most of the time in man-to-man unless things are going badly, but we’ll probably see both during the series, just to keep Indiana on their toes.
b) The benches. It’s hard to know quite what either of these teams will receive from their reserves. Mistie Mims has been a solid backup post for the Sun, but could have problems if she’s asked to cover Catchings for too long. On the perimeter they’ve got White, McCray and Renee Montgomery, who’s always a threat to make an impact with her quickness and scoring ability. But she’s also a threat to take 12 shots and hit 2 of them. Don’t let the Sixth Woman of the Year award fool you. Indiana went to a seven-player rotation in the Atlanta series once they’d made their lineup changes. That would leave just Sutton-Brown and Zellous as backups, the former in the post and the latter on the outside. At a guess, Dunn will try something similar again, and only shake it up if the need develops. But that will mean pretty heavy minutes for her key players.
c) The coaches. This is a matchup of two of the better generals in this league. Dunn’s not afraid to make changes when she has to, and the alternatives within her squad combined with the flexibility of players like Catchings gives her choices if she needs them. Thibault has built an excellent chemistry within his team, who play unselfishly and make the extra pass when they need to. As with Dunn, he’s good at spotting what’s going wrong and instructing his team on how to change it. Even in the course of just a best-of-three series, the coach that adapts quickest and responds to problems could have a big impact.
Summary and Prediction
While the scores probably won’t be as high as in the Western Finals, this should be a tight, entertaining series. The Sun fought hard to hold on to home court advantage in the regular season, and while they became a much better road team this year, that could be big. Indiana were significantly more successful on their own floor this season. However, it feels like Indiana have built a little more momentum late in the season, with the comeback against Atlanta topping that off. Both teams play strong, cohesive team defense, but I expect Indiana to create and knock down a slightly higher percentage of their shots. And despite the size disadvantage, I think Larkins, Catchings and Sutton-Brown can handle Charles and Jones slightly better than the Sun can deal with Indiana at the other end. But I don’t expect there to be much in it.
Indiana 2-1, and yes, I’m aware that means Indiana would have to win a deciding game on the road. This matchup feels too close to end in a sweep.