WNBA Today, 10/22/2012: Catchings and Fever complete richly deserved Finals victory

Before the 2012 WNBA Finals began, the Minnesota Lynx were the overwhelming favourites. They had the track record of winning last year, they’d had a smoother journey through the Conference Finals, they were healthier, and on paper most observers agreed that they had more talent. If you could find anyone predicting that the Indiana Fever would win the series, chances are they had some connection to the Fever organisation or one of the players. You could get 4-1 at various bookmakers for Indiana to win the Finals before the games began. But the Fever took Game 1 on the road, and responded to a Game 2 loss by blowing the Lynx out when the series returned to Indiana for Game 3. That left them just one win away from the holy grail of a WNBA championship, with the opportunity to close it out in front of their own fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And if they needed any further motivation, they were still the underdogs with the bookies to win Game 4.

After missing the first three games of the Finals, wing Katie Douglas was back in uniform for Game 4 after at least somewhat recovering from her ankle injury. She was by no means 100% healthy, and she was probably there largely for the boost that seeing her dressed might give her teammates, but she was theoretically available. Jeanette Pohlen was obviously still out after her ACL tear. The starting lineups were the same as the previous three games – Indiana’s Lin Dunn riding her successful crew; Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve still waiting for her key pieces to reach their usual heights.

The first couple of minutes of the game seemed like a decent start for Minnesota. Seimone Augustus missed a pair of runners in the lane, but the Lynx grabbed offensive boards on both. In fact they had three offensive rebounds in the opening minute of the game, and their opening three baskets all came right at the rim as Lindsay Whalen penetrated and Taj McWilliams-Franklin found a little room to finish inside. Then Indiana point guard Briann January picked up her second foul of the game after less than 4 minutes of play, sending the player who’d shackled Augustus in Game 3 back to the bench. All positive signs for the Lynx.

But as the first quarter wore on, much of the action was distinctly reminiscent of the previous Fever victories. They were the team injecting pace into the action, pushing the ball at every opportunity for easy chances to score. Minnesota’s transition defense was pathetic, with Shavonte Zellous and Erin Phillips simply beating them down the floor and going right to the rim. Twice, Augustus essentially watched while Fever players went right by her for layups. It was understandable that Augustus wanted to avoid early foul trouble, but that doesn’t mean that you completely fail to contest against players who are about to score, especially when you’re yet to pick up a single foul. Even in halfcourt sets, Indiana were the team driving to the rim and drawing contact, while Minnesota largely settled for jump shots. With the Fever defense as active as ever, and Augustus ice cold – both before and after January left the floor – Indiana led 25-18 at the end of the first period.

There was so little evidence of anything different from Minnesota in the early stages of this game. It was like they’d shown up simply expecting things to improve from the previous encounters, without making any alterations to engender that change. Augustus was still happy to fire away, even with nothing falling. Maya Moore was still shooting away from outside, and in early foul trouble. And their energy defensively still wasn’t matching up to Indiana’s activity at the other end. It wasn’t good enough from a champion team playing for their lives.

But Minnesota did start to show some signs of life in the second quarter, led by Lindsay Whalen. Moore had quickly returned to the bench after a stunningly dumb foul on a Karima Christmas jump shot as the shot clock expired, but Whalen started to take over all on her own. She was going right at Phillips, January or whoever else happened to be in front of her, and forcing the issue right at the rim. Finally the Lynx offense had a little drive, and it was on incredibly simple plays – one screen to at least hold up the first defender, and then dribble hard to the rack. Indiana’s help defense wasn’t getting there quite fast enough to handle Whalen, and then when she scared them into responding early, she started finding open players to score instead. Even Augustus was inspired enough to run the exact same play and make it to the rim for a layup.

With Minnesota’s increased offensive success, Indiana’s offense lost some of its flow. They didn’t have the same opportunities to push in transition, because the straightforward defensive rebounds weren’t as plentiful. But they were still attacking, still drawing contact, and the whistles were coming. In fact, with the increased driving at either end, it was a long, staccato second quarter as we saw more whistles and free throws than in earlier games in this series. Minnesota never could quite take the lead, although they tied the game up several times. Reeve took the risk of sending deep reserves Erin Thorn and Jessica Adair into the game for the final minutes of the first half, after they’d produced in Game 3 garbage time. In some ways it worked out – Adair had a couple of offensive rebounds, finished a putback, and drew Catchings’s third foul – but a Phillips 3 and January layup pushed the Fever back in front at the break, 47-42.

Whalen’s aggression had given the Lynx a lifeline in the first half, while Moore suffered on the bench and Augustus kept firing up bricks. With Zellous’s shooting falling back to earth after her Game 3 heroics, Indiana hadn’t been nearly as productive from outside, either. But there were still concerning signs for the Lynx, even beyond the lack of production from their two key wings. The Fever had already been to the free throw line 20 times in the first half (to Minnesota’s 9), illustrating their aggression and ability to get into the lane and draw contact. The Fever were also, once again, on top on the glass – holding a 21-17 lead in rebounds at the break. The key area where the regular season suggested Minnesota would have a big advantage in this series was once again failing to produce any kind of edge for the Lynx. Erlana Larkins had 7 boards at halftime to yet again lead the way for Indiana.

As the Fever once again showed themselves more capable of either making the skip pass to an open shooter or penetrating for chances at the rim, their lead reached double-digits early in the third quarter. Then it was Whalen again keying a Lynx comeback, as her passing and creation led to Lynx points, while their defense forced more contested Zellous jumpers that wouldn’t fall. But late in the third quarter, after Minnesota tied the game up yet again, Indiana responded once more. This time it was Catchings drilling a three and backup center Jessica Davenport posting up to finish inside, quickly pushing the lead back out to five. Minnesota kept pulling up alongside Indiana, but they could never quite manage to overtake – the Fever led 63-58 heading to the fourth.

By now, Indiana could taste it. The Fieldhouse was rocking with the city’s first professional championship in nearly 40 years looking a distinct possibility, and the Lynx still hadn’t established much consistency. Augustus was 3-18 after three quarters, comfortably her worst shooting performance of the entire season. January and the Fever defense were making her work hard for everything, but you just don’t expect Augustus to shoot this poorly from outside. Clearly she could barely believe it either, because she just kept firing away from the perimeter. It would’ve been nice to see her make more of an effort to get to the rim or earn trips to the free throw line, but the pullup jumpers and fadeaways continued to go up and bounce off the iron. Catchings was a complete contrast. She had trust in her teammates to make plays and make shots, but she was still the driving force behind her team at both ends – and she was going to the hoop to make things happen.

Moore had been slightly more accurate than Augustus offensively, but her defense in the early stages of the fourth quarter yet again left a lot to be desired. She’s the one that’s been on Zellous for much of this series while the Indiana guard has had some of the most productive offensive nights of her career, and it was Moore again getting beaten in the crucial late stages of this game. With Minnesota going small, she was trying to handle Catchings, who either went right by Moore to the rim or forced her into fouls. Then Phillips went past Moore on help defense for a layup. Then Moore wandered inside to waft at a drive, leaving Zellous open in the corner, and the ball was kicked for a wide open three that Zellous buried. With 5 minutes remaining, Reeve was forced into a timeout with her team trailing 75-67.

With 3:20 left in the game, and her team looking disheartened, Reeve finally decided she’d seen enough. Augustus was benched, with a shooting line of 3-21, and Reeve went with an unlikely perimeter of Whalen, Erin Thorn and Monica Wright. It was a big call to sideline a star scorer with minutes remaining in a game that could end the season, but given how Augustus had performed is was perfectly understandable. You could easily argue that the decision should’ve come sooner. Moore was at power forward with Rebekkah Brunson in the pivot, in the hope that a fresh lineup could finally produce some points. A pullup three from Moore with just over 2 minutes left gave the Lynx hope, cutting the deficit to 5 points, but then a completely unnecessary travelling violation from Moore on the next possession dashed it again. It summed up Minnesota’s night and even their series – occasional flashes of competence, but always with the next error close behind.

Out of a timeout, Catchings looked to attack Brunson, drew an extra defender, kicked to January, who drilled a three. That was the dagger. You can lose an 8-point lead with barely a minute left, but it’s going to take something distinctly unlikely. After Whalen finished a layup to cut it to 6, there was still time for Reeve to pick up a remarkably dumb technical foul for whining about an out-of-bounds call that went against her team (when it was the right call, and had been confirmed by replay). It allowed Catchings to extend the lead to 7 again, making it a three-possession game. The frustration of the poor performances had clearly gotten to Reeve just as much as her players. Her inability to come up with any answers to counter Indiana’s dominance in this series has been as conspicuous as the imbalance between the teams on the floor.

The party was beginning for the Fever and their fans. All Minnesota could do was convert layups and foul, but Indiana are an excellent free throw shooting team and weren’t missing. With three seconds left and the game well in hand, Dunn had the chance to send Katie Douglas into the game to experience the victory and take the cheers from the crowd. It was a nice touch. January sank the final free throws as Indiana completed an 87-78 victory that sealed the first ever WNBA championship for the Indiana Fever.

Unlikely as it may have seemed at the start of the series, this was a richly deserved win for Indiana. In fact, it was all the sweeter for the fight they had to show to reach the summit. They lost their opening game of the playoffs at home, made two changes to their starting lineup, and came back to knock off Atlanta. They went 1-0 down to Connecticut, then lost Douglas in the opening minutes of the decider, before playing the Sun off their own floor. And then they outplayed the strongly favoured Lynx for the significant majority of the WNBA Finals, to earn their rings. It was a championship built on defense, heart, hustle and hard work, plus pure desire to keep fighting that little bit harder than their opponents.

The Lynx will be desperately disappointed with how they performed in the Finals. Maybe we should’ve seen the signs when they barely made it past Seattle in the first round, but the way they dispatched LA in the Western Finals suggested they might’ve rediscovered their rhythm. But they could never quite match Indiana’s effort and energy levels, and across the series it allowed the Fever to stay in control. Even in this game, when the Fever didn’t shoot particularly well (25-67 as a team for 37%), Indiana found a way to get it done. They penetrated and created contact (finishing 29-31 at the foul line). They played tight defense to ensure that the Lynx could never gain control through their own offense. And they battled on the boards. While Erin Phillips, Briann January, Shavonte Zellous and others made shots that were vitally important throughout the series, and contributed to the all-round defensive effort, Erlana Larkins was huge. Without the move to insert her into the starting lineup in the Atlanta series, the Fever never would’ve made it to the Finals. And without her efforts on the glass, they never would’ve had a prayer of winning them. She finished Game 4 just 1-4 for 5 points, but 13 rebounds led the Fever to a 39-35 edge on the glass overall. That’s where Minnesota were supposed to dominate this series, but thanks to Larkins (and some help) it was never the case.

The Lynx scoring stars underperformed as well, failing to step up when they needed to in the face of Indiana’s pressure. Whalen came through as much as she could in Game 4 (9-12 for 22 points, 8 assists, 6 boards) but Moore and Augustus once again failed to have their typical impact. Augustus’s 3-21 shooting for only 8 points in Game 4 was merely the clearest example of several below-par performances. Brunson was outfought by Larkins, McWilliams-Franklin was made to look slow by the energy and hustle of the Fever, and the Lynx bench produced virtually nothing. This is a squad with plenty of talent that will still be a threat for years to come, but it was a painful series for a team that has come to expect a lot more from themselves. Full credit to Indiana for earning their wins, but Minnesota will feel that they didn’t produce the challenge they were capable of.

The Finals MVP trophy went, inevitably, to Tamika Catchings. A superstar of the women’s game who’d won everything there is to win apart from the WNBA title, finally completed that task with this victory. And she played the consummate leading role. Always a key part of the defensive effort, she was constantly involved in the offense as well as a driver and creator, and her jump shot also started to fall more consistently in the Finals. She played 39 minutes in Game 4, finishing 7-16 for 25 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1 block credited on the very last play of the game. It was just like Catchings to play to the very last second. Whoever you’re a fan of, you have to feel happy for Catchings finally achieving the goal she’s strived for for such a long time. Tammy Sutton-Brown and Katie Douglas had both waited a long time to win a championship as well, but Catchings was the one mentioned in the “Best never to win it all” conversations. Now she no longer has to be part of those discussions. When they raise the banner next year and hand her the ring, she’ll finally possess the jewelry that confirms her status as a WNBA champion. No one deserves it more.

 

Notes

While this ends the 2012 season, don’t go away thinking WNBAlien will enter hibernation until next summer. Free agency, trades, offseason moves and more will all be covered here when anything worthwhile needs covering, and there might even be a special piece or two wrapping up 2012 still to come. Keep checking back for updates, or follow me on Twitter at @RichardCohen1 if you so desire. The 2012 season may be over, but the WNBA keeps on churning.

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One comment on “WNBA Today, 10/22/2012: Catchings and Fever complete richly deserved Finals victory

  1. […] Finally, from Richard: Catchings and Fever complete richly deserved Finals victory […]

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