WNBA Today, 10/06/2012: Sun cool off Fever to strike first in Eastern Finals

While the first round of the 2012 WNBA playoffs in the Eastern and Western Conferences mirrored each other in many ways – one team came through with ease, the other had a hell of a fight – there was one key difference. Los Angeles may have made it through to opening round comfortably, but they then had to go on the road to open the Conference Finals. Connecticut had a similarly straightforward first round, but they got to open the Eastern Finals on their own floor. While that gave them an extra comfort level that the Sparks didn’t have, it also made the game even more crucial. Dropping the first game at home would’ve dug a big hole that would”ve been tough to climb out of.

The Indiana Fever were their opposition, a team happy to still be alive after salvaging their first-round matchup against Atlanta. Indiana opened Game 1 against Connecticut with the same lineup that turned the Dream series, with Erin Phillips and Erlana Larkins starting the game. The Sun were also unchanged, featuring the same starting five that they used whenever possible in the regular season.

The opening quarter went well for Indiana, although in very different ways from how they battled past Atlanta. While they were keeping the pace high and pushing the ball down the floor as they had against the Dream, the first period saw a return to the perimeter attack that the Fever relied upon for much of the regular season. Either on penetration and kicks, or on simple ball rotation and passing, Indiana were finding wide open shots around the outside and knocking them down. While you’d typically prefer more of your shots to come from nearer the rim, Lin Dunn’s team weren’t going to turn down the kind of open looks that Connecticut’s defense was giving up, and Indiana were capitalising.

At the other end, Connecticut were firing up a lot of shots from similar range, but without the space Indiana were finding. For the Sun it was more a matter of settling for outside shots and being kept out of the paint by the Fever, rather than taking jumpers because they were open. Tina Charles and Asjha Jones were being double-teamed if they attempted to post up on the low block, and were beginning to simply stop bothering to venture down there. Indiana were already 4-10 from three-point range after 10 minutes of play, and led 22-14.

The Fever double-teams on the low block have been a feature of their defense all season, so Connecticut should’ve been ready for them. Rather than coming from the high defender on the same side of the floor as the ball, the extra defender comes from the baseline. The initial defender overplays the high side, knowing where her help is coming from, and then the attacking player tries to turn into the space on the baseline – only to run into the second defender. It’s especially effective because the player it leaves open is on the opposite side of the floor, in the deep corner, who is hard to rotate the ball to before the defense can recover and jump back out. In the opening stages of this game Connecticut rarely managed to find anyone open or create anything useful against the pressure of those double-teams.

However, in the second quarter the Sun’s defense improved significantly, and they started to slide back into the game. The open perimeter shots weren’t there for Indiana any more, as the Sun defenders stayed home on shooters while still keeping things tight in the paint. Most of their own offense was still coming on jump shots, and there still wasn’t much flow for Connecticut, but with Indiana’s points drying up the game got tighter. Close enough, in fact, that the score was tied 30-30 at halftime.

Part of the problem for Indiana in the failing to maintain or extend their lead was that Tamika Catchings was once again being kept quiet. Her shooting was off-target for much of the Atlanta series as well, and with Connecticut doing a better job of keeping the Fever out of the paint there weren’t many easy chances available. Katie Douglas shot well to open the game, but went cold in the second quarter under improved defensive pressure. Indiana couldn’t keep looking for the three-point shots that had served them so well in the opening minutes if the Sun were going to stay home on the shooters far more consistently.

The Sun came out of the locker room for the second half with a noticeably improved approach offensively. Everything was happening quicker. The passing and decision-making were sharper, and we saw plays that they simply hadn’t been making in the first half. They kicked out of one of those low post double-teams, instantly made the second pass to the open player in the far corner, and Kalana Greene knocked down the open jumper. Then there was a skip pass over the overplaying Indiana defense, for a wide open Kara Lawson to hit the three. Then finally some speed in transition, with Lawson finding Jones for the finish (and the foul).

Inconsistent officiating didn’t help the flow of the game – it’s hard to know what kind of contact you can make when it varies from second to second – but Connecticut began to pull away as the third period progressed. Their defense was doing what Atlanta hadn’t managed to do against Indiana – cutting off penetration and passing lanes to the rim – while still keeping close to the perimeter shooters and avoiding the open shots they’d allowed early in the game. With defensive stops leading into better offense, and Charles working hard on the glass against Larkins, Connecticut had built a 9-point lead by the end of the third quarter.

Indiana broke out their 2-3/3-2 combo-zone late in the third quarter and on into the fourth, but with little success. Connecticut were playing with some confidence now, and their typically unselfish passing was finding players in space and they were hitting shots over or inside the zone. The Sun’s lead ballooned to 15 inside the first 90 seconds of the fourth quarter, forcing Dunn into a timeout.

From there on, we found ourselves with a bizarrely different game from the one we’d been watching most of the night. After a first half with 60 total points, and the offensive struggles Indiana had suffered through ever since their outside looks disappeared, we were suddenly witnessing a shootout. The Fever put the ball in Katie Douglas’s hands – she was now essentially playing point guard, with regular PG Briann January having been shackled by Allison Hightower all night – and Douglas got ridiculously hot. She was knocking down everything from everywhere, firing up an array of jumpers that repeatedly dropped in. She scored 11 points in 2:30 in the middle of the fourth quarter. But the comeback still wasn’t happening, because almost every Douglas bucket was answered in some way at the other end of the floor. Lawson and White both hit threes over the zone; Charles finished inside; Hightower earned her way to the free throw line; and Jones nailed one of those jumpers that wouldn’t drop in the early minutes of the game. Despite Douglas’s heroics against the franchise she represented for so many years, the lead never dropped below 10. When Douglas charged in for yet another bucket, this time on a driving layup, she screamed at the ref for not adding the foul on top – but the technical foul her protests resulted in scarcely mattered. With under 2 minutes remaining the lead was still double-digits, and the game was over. Connecticut ran out the last couple of minutes comfortably for a 76-64 win.

Outside of the first quarter, Sun head coach Mike Thibault will be delighted with how his team performed. They managed to tighten up on the outside, stop leaving shooters open, and still close off the paint. It wasn’t the prettiest offensive display they’ll ever produce, but Charles was 6-14 for 18 points, 15 rebounds (7 offensive) and 4 blocks to lead the way. That’s what they need from her in the paint in a series where she’s either significantly bigger than her competition – vs. Larkins – or a vastly better physical presence – vs. Tammy Sutton-Brown. The guards stepped up when they had to as well, with Hightower, Lawson, Tan White and Renee Montgomery all knocking down shots (Montgomery also finished with a surprising 7 assists, tying her highest total of the season). As a team they shot 7-13 from beyond the arc, and it sure makes it easier to beat Indiana’s zone when those shots are falling. But the Sun didn’t panic or just blankly fire away when the Fever switched to their zone, they moved the ball and attacked the space like they’re supposed to, drawing far more fouls and free throws than Indiana. All that combined to put them in a strong position to begin this series.

Whereas all the questions are left for Lin Dunn, Tamika Catchings and the Fever to solve. In the ESPN interview between the first and second quarters, Dunn rightly said that if the Sun were going to leave them open beyond the arc, they were going to take those shots. The problems arose when they were no longer open, and couldn’t come up with any alternatives. The lanes that they found to the basket against Atlanta weren’t anywhere near as open from the elbow handoffs and ball-screens that had been so effective in the previous series. That led to fewer easy shots, and far fewer free throw attempts than they created in Games 2 and 3 against the Dream. The Fever might get the benefit of a few extra calls from the officials back in their home arena, but they’re still going to have to do a better job of moving the ball and breaking down the Connecticut defense. Indiana wasted an exceptional shooting night from Douglas, who finished 11-19 for 27 points, and she might not be able to replicate that again to the same level. Catchings (2-14 for just 7 points) and January (2-7 for 7) were both ineffective offensively, Catchings against Jones or Mistie Mims and a lot of help, January against Hightower, White, or whoever else Thibault felt like throwing at her. Some of this isn’t down to sets or designs – they also just need their key players to step up.

However, you do wonder what kinds of changes Dunn might try in Game 2. We saw big lineup alterations after a Game 1 loss in the first round, but it might not be something that obvious. Larkins (4-8 for 9 points, 8 rebounds) did okay in her battle with Charles, but we could see Jessica Davenport receive her first minutes since Game 1 against Atlanta to offer a different look inside. Or even back to a big lineup with Catchings at the 3, where the Sun don’t have a natural big wing to guard her. We also might see more of the Fever’s zone defense earlier in the game, challenging the Sun to shoot as well from outside in a second consecutive outing. Outside of Lawson, the Sun’s gunners haven’t been that consistent this season. On the bright side for Indiana, they already know that they can come back from 1-0 down to win a series, having completed the feat just last week. Now they have to repeat the trick, or their season’s over.

 

Notes

There’s been no announcement, but it’s safe to guess that Nneka Ogwumike will receive her Rookie of the Year award at tomorrow’s Sparks-Lynx game in Los Angeles. They usually like to hand the awards out while the player’s still in action and, well, it could easily be LA’s last game of the year. Barring a comeback against Minnesota, it will definitely be their last home game.

 

Upcoming Games

Sunday October 7th (tomorrow):

Minnesota @ Los Angeles, Game 2 (Lynx lead 1-0), 3.30pm ET

—–

Monday October 8th:

Connecticut @ Indiana, Game 2 (Sun lead 1-0), 8pm ET

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