After Minnesota assured their spot in the WNBA Finals by completing a sweep over LA on Sunday, the Connecticut Sun had the chance to follow suit last night. But it was never going to be easy against an Indiana Fever team that clawed back from 1-0 down in the previous round and is led by the WNBA’s ultimate competitor, Tamika Catchings. If the Sun wanted the extra time off before the Finals begin on Sunday, they were going to have to hold off a Fever team fighting for its life in front of their own raucous fans. It turned out to be a hell of a battle.
There were no immediate, dramatic changes from the head coaches, as both Connecticut’s Mike Thibault and Indiana’s Lin Dunn stuck with the same starting lineups. The early minutes went Connecticut’s way, as the Sun broke out to a 13-2 lead. They’d opened the scoring with Tina Charles throwing up a three-pointer to beat the shot clock that dropped in, and kept the momentum going by knocking down jumpers and completing three-point plays at the rim. There was a quick pace to the game and the Fever were creating some opportunities in the paint, but failing to convert under pressure. It wasn’t a promising start for the team whose season was on the line.
However, as the first quarter progressed, Indiana settled down and started to ease their way back into the game. Big center Jessica Davenport saw her first minutes since the opening first-round game against Atlanta, coming in as the first post off the bench instead of Tammy Sutton-Brown, and provided a different look. She offers a big target for the offense to work around, and a soft touch when her shot’s falling. Then Tamika Catchings started drilling jumpers, with one from mid-range and a pair of threes to follow. Considering the number of poor shooting games Catchings has had in the playoffs – admittedly while driving the team in every other area – it was a significant positive for the Fever to see her start hitting early. Katie Douglas was looking sharp as well, and closed out the first quarter with a finish through traffic at the rim. Kara Lawson was already looking scarily hot from the perimeter for Connecticut but Indiana were right back in it after 10 minutes, trailing just 24-20.
One additional area of concern had developed for the Fever though, before the first quarter was even finished. Point guard Briann January picked up an early foul with a swipe at Asjha Jones on a putback attempt, added another completely unnecessary foul by grabbing Allison Hightower in transition, then drew a third when Renee Montgomery tried to drive past her. The problems deepened when Erin Phillips, the natural option to slide over to the point, picked up her own third foul in the opening minutes of the second quarter – again with a reach-in on Jones. Indiana weren’t having much luck with the officials, but there were still some dumb plays in there by the Fever guards. It left Douglas being forced to take over the primary ballhandling duties, whether she wanted to or not, and Jeanette Pohlen coming in for far more minutes than would’ve originally been intended.
The issues with the refs proved a little too much for Indiana’s Erlana Larkins, who was doing everything she could to battle it out with Tina Charles in the paint. Frustrated at the lack of a call on one finish at the rim, Larkins drew a technical foul for her protestations midway through the second quarter. Catchings had the smarts to go right at the rim and draw a cheap make-up call on the very next play.
Led by their team defense, with Douglas and Catchings driving the offense as usual, Indiana took hold of the momentum in the second quarter. Connecticut were still scoring pretty effectively, with Jones knocking down her midrange jumper and Charles finding some occasional room inside, but the Fever were on top. Being forced to slide Douglas over to the point had worked out fine, simply putting the ball in the hands of one of their best scorers and helping the offensive production. As always, the idea defending Douglas is to force her right, but it’s amazing how often she uses a high screen to initially go to the right side of the floor, then finds a way to sweep around onto her left hand and create a shot or get to the rim. Once again she closed the period with a tough finish at the basket, giving Indiana a 46-43 lead at the half.
The stars for Connecticut were all remarkably efficient in that first half. Between them, Charles, Jones and Lawson shot 13-17 for 34 points. But the rest of the team was 3-12 for just 9, and Indiana had taken control of the hustle plays. Despite that ugly start, the Fever finished the half with 8 offensive rebounds for 13 second-chance points, and forced 9 Connecticut turnovers for 15 Indiana points. They weren’t going to let their season end if they could possibly help it.
It turned out to be a scrappy third quarter, with neither team managing to find much flow and the defenses on top. Both January and Phillips came back with their three fouls and managed to avoid picking up more, but suddenly it was Connecticut with the foul problems. Jones picked up her third on a Catchings hesitation move, then swiftly added her fourth with a silly reach on a Douglas drive. That sent Jones to the bench, although as with Indiana in the first half, the team coped well. Mistie Mims came in and gave the Sun the same kind of hustle and activity that Indiana receive from Larkins. Mims doesn’t have the natural talent of Jones, but she’ll work for everything, and in a game this intense that was valuable. Ultimately, Lawson and Hightower hit a few more shots than Phillips and January in the third quarter, allowing Connecticut to head to the fourth up 57-56. Neither of the Charles/Jones or Douglas/Catchings pairings had produced much at all since the break.
In fact, it was a strange third quarter. Charles seemed to constantly end up in the high post, rather than down on the low block where Connecticut surely would’ve prefered to see her. That likely had something to do with the physical defense of Larkins and the regular double-teaming Charles sees down there from the Fever, but the intelligent passing and ball rotation of the Sun could’ve created chances from those positions even if Charles wasn’t scoring herself. Catchings and Douglas went quiet in the third, but at least they had the ball in their hands with the chance to do something with it. Charles looked a little stranded.
Davenport was back in to start the fourth quarter, and again offered the Fever a boost. She has more of an offensive game than Sutton-Brown in the halfcourt, and produced a jumper, a nice drop off pass for a Phillips three, and then an offensive rebound and easy putback to open the final period. It gave the Fever their biggest lead of the night at 63-57.
To that point, Renee Montgomery had been on the floor for almost 20 minutes of basketball. If you’d noticed, you’d been paying very close attention. She’d done virtually nothing all evening, only to respond to the 6-point deficit by nailing a pair of threes in quick succession to tie the game. The first was over Davenport to barely beat the shot clock, the second from deep outside. That’s the kind of thing Montgomery can produce, even if you sometimes have to leave her out there for a while for it to occur. Catchings answered by bullying her way to the free throw line, only for Jones to throw in another three that was fired up largely to beat the shot clock. Indiana were doing a successful job for 23 seconds of the Sun offenses, and being hurt in that final moment.
However, with the confidence built by those long-range efforts dropping in, Connecticut’s offensive execution noticeably improved. Lawson hit a jumper when she attacked Davenport off the dribble after a Fever switch, then Jones found Charles open under the rim on a backdoor cut that beat the switching defense, then Kalana Greene hit an open 10-footer along the baseline (again the switching defense was a split-second too slow). Whether in zone or man-to-man, Indiana had done a solid job of keeping Connecticut away from the danger areas and contesting everything all night, but the Sun are such a smart, unselfish team. They’ll take advantage of any small breakdown. That Greene jumper gave Connecticut a 72-67 lead with barely 4 minutes remaining.
The next play – and call – was vitally important for the closing minutes. Douglas drove to the rim rather than settling for another jumper, created contact with Jones, and drew the foul. It was minimal contact, and maybe Douglas was a little lucky to get the call, but that was Jones’s fifth foul. Jones stayed in the game, but her defense was even more tentative for the remaining minutes as she tried to avoid fouling out.
While the whole Fever team – and Larkins in particular – had done an impressive job in the fight on the glass through the course of the game, offensive rebounds for the Sun started to seriously hurt Indiana in the fourth quarter. Their defense was scrambling desperately to switch, recover and challenge everything, and it was leaving Fever players out of position to box out or rebound. It led to Sun possessions that seemingly wouldn’t end – although Connecticut weren’t converting even with multiple opportunities.
With two minutes left, Douglas used a Catchings screen to get Jones lined up as her defender, then attacked off the dribble. It resulted in the rare sight of a right-handed Katie Douglas finish at the rim, which she was able to convert because of the lack of challenge from the foul-troubled Jones. Lawson tried to answer with a crazily deep three, and when Jones grabbed the offensive rebound she gave up the ball under intense Fever pressure. Douglas attacked again, this time with her more traditional left hand, and converted through contact from Charles for a three-point play. Once she added the free-throw, Indiana were up 74-72 with under a minute to play.
Once again, offensive boards were a problem for Indiana. Montgomery missed under pressure from Shavonte Zellous, but Charles was there to grab the rebound and was fouled. She hit both free throws to tie the game. Indiana didn’t call timeout, preferring to attack a defense that had less time to set up. This time it was Catchings’s turn to attack, going right by Jones to the rim for a layup that was finished before the help from Charles could arrive. The defense from Jones on that one could be classed as ‘terrible’, rather than just tentative. Fever back up by two, 21 seconds remaining.
Despite Lawson and Montgomery both being on the floor, the ball went in to Hightower for the Sun. A high Charles screen led to a switch – Indiana were switching everything by this point – leaving Larkins on Hightower. She might not be the first option offensively, but Hightower’s offensive game has come a long way this season, as has her confidence. She saw the mismatch and went right at it, driving around Larkins for a pretty left-handed floater – and the foul. That’s the sort of play where officials often swallow their whistles, but Larkins took a big swipe at the ball (and Hightower) while the shot was going up and suffered the consequences. With 12.5 seconds left, Hightower had a free throw to put Connecticut in front.
But she missed. And it led to a crazy sequence. The desperate fight for the rebound eventually saw the ball drop to Catchings, who immediately pushed the other way – Indiana again turning down the option of a timeout to set things up. Catchings made a remarkable 40-foot pass that left her laid out on the floor, but led a streaking Briann January in for an open layup. Which she missed. But January was still alive enough to track down the rebound, and save it from going out of bounds with a dive that allowed her to tip the ball back to Zellous. Aware of just how little time she had, Zellous took two dribbles to her right to create space, rose up from 17-feet, and knocked down the crucial jumper with only 0.5 seconds on the clock. The roof came off Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and with no timeouts Connecticut had no chance to answer. Somehow, the Fever had come away with a 78-76 victory, and forced a deciding game on Thursday night.
It was a wild finish, and maybe an all-or-nothing decider is what this matchup deserves, but Connecticut will be disappointed not to have closed this one out already. Charles and Jones were both effective and efficient whenever they received the ball in the right spots, they just didn’t see enough of it. Credit Indiana’s defense for much of that – they were active and aggressive all night, with Larkins physical and intense against Charles inside – but the Sun were a little too willing to let their fortunes be decided by jump shots from their supporting players. Even Lawson drifted out of the game for stretches in the second half, despite outstanding shooting when she did get the chance to fire. Whether they can turn this result around and win Game 3 will depend on finding easier opportunities for the right players, while keeping control of the ball. There were too many turnovers under the Fever’s pressure, resulting in too many lost possessions. The fourth quarter barrage of offensive rebounds evened up that fight, but Charles and Larkins will go back to war again on Thursday as well. That’ll be another key area, and you wonder whether Charles’s niggling injuries or the fact that Larkins hasn’t been conditioned to play these heavy minutes for most of the season could play a role.
Indiana produced the kind of battling, never-say-die performance that we expected to see in a game on their own floor that could’ve finished their season. They tied a WNBA playoff record for fewest assists with just 6, illustrating how much of their offense was produced on individual moves – primarily Catchings and Douglas creating their own shots or driving to the rim – but they got the job done. They were more effective at penetrating the Sun defense, with less of the dribble-handoff motion at the top of the arc that had proved unsuccessful in Game 1. Instead it was more standard pick-and-roll action, along with simply putting the ball in the hands of their key players and letting them create. Catchings (7-16 for 21 points) and Douglas (9-19 for 24) came through when they had to, and both shot well at important times. They’ll need to do that again in Game 2. The defensive intensity was key as well. Connecticut may not have forced the ball down low enough, but they’re still effective at taking advantage of whatever holes the defense leaves behind. It’ll be another fight between two closely matched teams in the elimination game on Thursday night.
Thursday October 11th
Indiana @ Connecticut, Game 3 (series tied 1-1), 8.30pm ET