There were plenty of positives for the Indiana Fever heading into last night’s vital Game 3 in the best-of-five WNBA Finals. They’d managed to split the opening two games in Minnesota, stealing home-court advantage from a Lynx team that had finished 16-1 at home in the regular season. They were back on their own floor, in front of a raucous, sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd (legitimately sold-out too, not ‘sold out all the sections made available’). They’d even finalised a sponsorship agreement with Finish Line earlier in the day which stabilised the franchise’s future. But they were facing one or two problems as well. Katie Douglas’s ankle still hadn’t recovered, and now Jeanette Pohlen was out as well due to a left knee injury, leaving the Fever desperately thin on the perimeter. The Lynx had fought their way back into the series in Game 2, dominating the rebounding battle, and if that happened again Indiana were in trouble. It certainly didn’t look like it was going to be an easy task for the Fever to regain control of this series by taking Game 3.
With Douglas still in street clothes, Shavonte Zellous once again filled her spot in the lineup. Neither team made any changes to their starting personnel, but it was quickly apparent that Indiana had made one clear change to their approach. Point guard Briann January was now the primary defender on Seimone Augustus, a challenge that had largely fallen to Erin Phillips in the previous two games. Phillips swapped over to take Lindsay Whalen. Both Phillips and January are undersized to handle scorers like Augustus or Maya Moore, but they’re both physical and quick defenders. January has that extra little bit of speed, so maybe Indiana felt she could give Augustus problems simply by chasing and constantly harassing her. Or maybe it was just to offer up one extra element that Minnesota might not have been expecting to face.
After the physicality of Game 2 and the now-notorious jacket-tossing sequence from Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, many had been expecting the officials to call Game 3 tightly in the opening stages to get a grip on the contest. It didn’t really happen, partly because of the style of the game. It was a pretty open, free-wheeling first quarter, and there weren’t a lot of calls that needed to be made.
Indiana weren’t getting many shots to fall in the early stages, but they were still on top. January was doing an impressive job on Augustus (with help from her teammates whenever necessary) and the Indiana defense in general was making life incredibly difficult for Minnesota. Indiana were so quick and active that they were making it hard for the Lynx to even set up their sets or make simple passes, leading to stilted, unfocused offense from Minnesota. The Fever were also forcing Lynx turnovers, which enabled Indiana to attack with pace at the other end of the floor. The likes of January, Phillips and Tamika Catchings all had opportunities to drive for early offense, or they’d move the ball well and find open chances around the perimeter. If they’d shot better in the first quarter, they’d have been even more comfortable.
As it was, the Fever ended the opening period with a 21-16 lead, already having taken 10 more shots than Minnesota thanks to their 7-1 advantage in forcing turnovers. On the glass, the Erlana Larkins from Game 1 was back with a vengeance, going after everything and getting plenty of help from her teammates. As mentioned after Game 2, the Fever needed the rebounding effort to come from the whole team, not just the posts, and the January/Phillips backcourt already had 5 boards in the opening 10 minutes. They were doing the dirty work that needed to be done.
Minnesota were already floundering a little, with Augustus failing to get much going and Moore completely anonymous. They’d tried to use their depth, only for Devereaux Peters to pick up two fouls in her first 21 seconds on the floor while Candice Wiggins was awful yet again. The backup posts have been hit or miss for Minnesota all season, but Wiggins’s production has fallen off the map in the last month. She can’t hit from outside – the one thing she’s expected to offer this team – and her ballhandling and decision-making has been poor as well. It’s reached the stage where the only reason she’s still seeing minutes ahead of deep reserve Erin Thorn is her defense. Meanwhile Indiana – the team that were supposed to be shorthanded – had already used Karima Christmas to spell their perimeter rotation, while Jessica Davenport and Tammy Sutton-Brown were ready to backup the posts. Apart from the two young women in street clothes on the Fever bench, you’d never have known which team was missing important pieces.
Things got much, much worse for Minnesota in the second quarter. They couldn’t get anything done against Indiana’s defense, which was feeding off the crowd’s energy and just rolling from possession to possession. Their ball-denial was outstanding, and the Lynx simply couldn’t find any rhythm or consistent attack at any stage. The Fever threw in some of their 2-3/3-2 combo-zone just to keep the Lynx constantly off-balance, but the ethos behind Indiana’s defense was always the same whatever version they were using – high-tempo, constant motion, always be ready to help when your teammate needs you, and make everything difficult for Minnesota. The Lynx were frustrated, taking bad shots, and not making anything.
At the other end, Indiana weren’t exactly shooting the lights out, but they were more penetrative – which got them more calls – and they were moving the ball better. Plus, they had the one player on the floor stepping up offensively. Zellous, often an inconsistent shooter, was firing away and hitting from outside, then driving into the paint and finishing inside. By the time we hit halftime she already had 15 points, and the Fever lead had ballooned to 45-27.
Indiana were on top in every statistical category you cared to examine at the break. They hadn’t forced the same number of turnovers in the second quarter, but they were still well on top in that area because they’d taken such good care of the ball themselves. They were even ahead on the glass 20-15, a step up from the tie that they would’ve happily settled for in that area. The Lynx had an extraordinary one assist in the entire first half, although when you only score 10 baskets your assist numbers do tend to remain pretty low. Minnesota had simply been dominated in every facet of the game by an opponent who entered this series as the heavy underdog. The reigning champs hadn’t caused many problems with their defense, and hadn’t managed to create anything worthwhile with their offense. It was a startlingly one-sided affair.
And incredibly enough, it got even worse in the third period. On Minnesota’s second possession after the interval, Augustus drove the lane, drew an extra defender, and made a nice dump-off pass to Taj McWilliams-Franklin for an easy layup. That tied their assist total from the entire first half, and suggested that the Lynx might have some life left in them. They then proceeded to go the next 9 minutes of the game without converting a single field goal. Nothing had changed. The Fever defense continued to dominate, and the Lynx grew increasingly frustrated while they took poorer and poorer shots that had no chance of turning the tide. Reeve sent in four backups simultaneously after only three minutes of the second half, and moments later Thorn made it a full complement of bench players on the floor. Three minutes later, with the Indiana lead at 32, Reeve sent all the regular starters back in en masse. It was a “you got us into this mess, now go show some pride” kind of statement from the Lynx head coach. It didn’t really work, largely because Zellous was still in a ridiculous zone. She was lighting up Maya Moore on threes, mid-range jumpers and layups. She would’ve hit if she’d shot from the bathroom. With two minutes left in the third quarter, the lead hit a ridiculous 37 points at 70-33 – the largest lead ever in any WNBA Finals game. It was a massacre.
Fever coach Lin Dunn talked to her team in the break between the third and fourth quarters about playing the game out and sending a message, but there was a natural drop-off with the game essentially over. With Game 4 only 48 hours later, Reeve played the vast majority of the fourth quarter with a lineup of reserves, who finally discovered a little offense for Minnesota. Indiana were still forced to play a lot of the same players simply because there was no one healthy on the bench to turn the game over to, but their offense disappeared in the fourth quarter with the game in hand. In fact, they only made one shot the rest of the night after establishing that 70-33 lead. But they’d done more than enough already, and it’s hard to imagine that the Lynx can take muchrom a fourth quarter performance featuring several players who’ll barely see the floor on Sunday. Indiana may have failed to send the message Dunn wanted in the fourth quarter, but they sent it loud and clear in the first three. Amazingly enough, the 76-59 final scoreline flattered the Lynx. This was a lot worse than a 17-point defeat.
It’s hard to know quite what to say about Minnesota’s performance in this game, or how they go about fixing it for Game 4. If this was a regular season game, after an outing this horrific, you’d burn the tape and quickly erase all memory of it. But they have to play this team again on Sunday night, and they have to deal with the same defense. Absolutely nothing worked for the Lynx. They couldn’t find any room to breathe against Indiana’s defense, couldn’t knock down the shots that might’ve created a little space, and didn’t move the ball anywhere near well enough to find the gaps. January was probably Indiana’s quietest player on the offensive end, but the job she did on Augustus more than compensated. Whalen, Augustus and Moore all finished in single-digits, and none of them had any kind of stroke going all evening. But more than that, they didn’t even have any good looks.
As always, each facet of the game played into the next. The lack of decent Minnesota offense enabled Indiana to push the ball back the other way and leave the Lynx constantly on the back foot defensively. The team rebounding from the Fever, led by Larkins, completely reversed the situation from Game 2 – and the same thing happened in the turnover battle. Indiana finished up 39-30 on the glass, and 18-13 in turnovers forced (14-7 in the first three quarters when everyone was still trying, for a 22-7 advantage in points off turnovers). If those two categories fall that way again, Minnesota’s season will come to a painful end on Sunday evening. They have to step up their defensive intensity, which will lead to some easy scoring chances and some speed within their offense that was never remotely apparent last night. The rebounding achieves the same thing – on the defensive end it enables outlets and quick attacks, while on the offensive end you keep your own possessions alive while limiting Indiana’s opportunities to push. The Lynx should be able to dominate this team on the glass, even with Larkins’s remarkable ability to position herself and fight for rebounds. Everyone has to commit to boxing out the Fever like they did in Game 2, and then it can roll into other aspects of the game.
And it’s not just on the glass that the Lynx have to capitalise on their size. Augustus and Moore are both significantly bigger than their defenders, but have barely utilised that in this series. They tried making passes over the top a couple of times early in this game, but the Fever defense was so quick to come across and help that it was quickly snuffed out. Minnesota need better spacing around the floor to make it more difficult to send help, and the crisp unselfish passing that’s usually a feature of their game has to return. Some of it will always come down to the stars simply making plays, but they have to be put in positions where it’s as easy as possible.
From a Fever perspective, obviously Game 3 was an outstanding performance. There was no sense of feeling sorry for themselves after Game 2 got away from them in the fourth quarter, and no easing themselves into this one or expecting the crowd to carry them. They were intense on the defensive end from the opening tip, never giving the Lynx a moment’s respite, and just kept piling it on. Zellous had the game of her life offensively, finishing 10-17 for 30 points, and she also did a solid job on Moore at the other end (when Moore woke up enough to pose any kind of threat). Larkins was relatively quiet offensively again (3-5 for 10 points) but Indiana will take that kind of ‘quiet’ outing every night. She finished with 15 rebounds, 8 of them offensive, thoroughly winning the paint battle with McWilliams-Franklin and Rebekkah Brunson. Indiana have won the two games in the Finals where Larkins was outstanding on the glass, and lost the one where she faded into the background. That’s absolutely no coincidence.
So what can we expect in Game 4? It’s hard to imagine that a team with the heart and talent of the Lynx will allow their season to trail to an end with another performance as meek as this one, so the smart money’s on another war of a game. Simple pride and effort ought to produce a more balanced encounter, even if Reeve and her team can’t come up with any obvious corrections in style or sets to counter Indiana’s defense. Pohlen is definitely out again for the Fever (her knee injury was revealed today as an ACL tear) but Douglas is supposedly a possibility to return. While they’d undoubtedly like the extra depth, it’s hard to know if Indiana would want to upset their own rhythm by trying to reintegrate her at this point, especially as she’d likely be below 100%. The remaining players have fought their way to the brink of a remarkable victory, taking Tamika Catchings one game away from the only title she’s yet to achieve. Another performance like last night’s from Indiana and there may not be anything the Lynx can do to prevent her from finally claiming a WNBA championship.
Remaining WNBA Finals Schedule (Fever lead best-of-five 2-1)
Sunday October 21st:
Minnesota @ Indiana, Game 4, 8pm ET
Wednesday October 24th:
Indiana @ Minnesota, Game 5 (if necessary), 8pm ET