Last night’s game was not quite what ESPN2 were expecting when they put this matchup on their schedule. Connecticut were meant to be the team that lost just nine games in the regular season last year. Indiana were supposed to be the squad that fought through the 2012 playoffs to earn a championship. Instead, this rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finalists saw a clash between two 1-3 teams, both beset by injuries and still trying to get their 2013 campaigns on the right track. Rather than fighting it out at the top of the East, as these two were throughout last season, this was a battle to stay out of the basement.
The Sun started the season knowing winning would be a little more difficult, due to the absence of Asjha Jones. Then in recent weeks they’ve also lost Renee Montgomery and Tan White to injury, and Kara Lawson missed their last game as well. Fortunately for Connecticut, Lawson’s back had recovered enough to allow her to face the Fever. They also had Iziane Castro Marques and Sydney Carter available for the first time, after roster moves during the week.
For Indiana it’s becoming a repetitive story. Erin Phillips, Jessica Davenport and Jeanette Pohlen are all out and aren’t expected to return for a while yet. And unlike Lawson, Katie Douglas’s back continued to keep her on the sidelines. So that’s four of the Fever’s top-eight rotation players, including Tamika Catchings’s primary sidekick – it’s not hard to see why Indiana have been struggling.
Despite that, there were a couple of positive early moments for the Fever. Their two opening buckets of the game came via drive-and-kick penetration, leading to Briann January draining a pair of threes. January has really struggled so far this season, limited by the lack of weapons for her to find around the floor. With so many important players out you hope remaining pieces – like January – can step up their game and produce more to compensate. She’s been as solid as ever defensively, but offensively that hasn’t really happened. And unfortunately for the Fever, those early threes turned out to be her only points last night. So much for the positive start.
There were problems for Indiana at the other end as well. Tina Charles has had some mediocre games to open the year, shooting just 37.5% from the field. Knowing that more of the load is on her shoulders with Jones out, she’s been pressing a little and taking too many tough shots – and probably just too many shots, period. There was a clear intention to plant her on the low block in this game and feed her the ball down there, then let her go to work. This wasn’t going to be the Charles that stood around the free-throw line tossing up jumpers all night – she was going deep into the trenches to get better shots. And she had the perfect team to do that against. Indiana are obviously a small-ball team with Catchings and Erlana Larkins starting in their frontcourt, but they’re also very thin down there with Davenport injured and Tammy Sutton-Brown retired. Larkins was dominated by Charles for a host of early buckets, then picked up two fouls in the first quarter while trying to defend the reigning MVP. This was what Sun fans want to see from their superstar.
It was really an ugly first half for Indiana. There didn’t seem to be much life in the crowd – not that their team was giving them anything to be excited about – and offense was hard to come by. Shavonte Zellous, one of their few bright spots in previous games, couldn’t hit a shot to save her life, and Catchings was distinctly hit-or-miss. Bafflingly, they managed to stay in the game. They fell behind by as many as 10, but an occasional jump shot, a few free throws, and forcing 12 Connecticut turnovers kept them in it. The Fever trailed just 38-35 at halftime and that felt like a victory for Indiana considering how the game had gone. Being within three was some kind of victory.
A similar pattern persisted in the second half. Indiana were sending harder double-teams at Charles, but she was in such a rhythm by this point that she was scoring anyway. Indy would scrap together some occasional offense – like Zellous finally hitting a three – only to give it right back – like January ridiculously rotating to Kelly Faris, leaving Kara Lawson wide open for three after the extra pass. One bright spot came in some positive minutes from Karima Christmas, who was working her butt off making hustle plays and chasing down rebounds. With the 10th/11th/12th players in their rotation becoming 6th/7th/8th to start this season, the Fever have been getting virtually nothing from a weak bench, so it was nice to see one of them step up. Especially considering rookie guard Layshia Clarendon is still working out how to play at this level.
Indiana made their last legitimate push in the early minutes of the fourth quarter – all with Catchings on the bench, and mostly with January sat next to her. Zellous, Christmas and Larkins dragged them back to within a point at 60-59 with under seven minutes remaining, only for the natural order to be quickly resumed. Zellous had their one chance to take the lead and missed a jumper, before a Charles offensive board and putback got Connecticut rolling again. Missed layups and missed jumpers just kept piling up for Indiana, while Allison Hightower and Charles drained theirs for the Sun. It took the Fever nearly 5 minutes of gametime to score another point after they achieved that 60-59 mark, and by that stage their fate was virtually sealed. Yet another Charles jumper iced it – she’d stepped further out in the second half, but everything was still going in – and Connecticut eased home for a 73-61 victory.
Charles was the story for the Sun. She finished the game a ridiculous 13-17 for 30 points and 10 rebounds, plus three blocks and three assists. Most opponents will have bigger bodies in the paint and send more help at her than Indiana did early in this game, but this is what the Sun need from her. Establish the paint presence, create high-percentage shots, and then use the impressive range to stretch a defense. She also made some smart passing decisions once the Fever did start to send a lot of help defenders her way. The role players around her are still going to have to make plays, and she’s still going to have to trust them from night-to-night, but when she plays like this the supporting cast has a lot less work to do.
Saying Indiana are struggling doesn’t really cover how poorly they played in this game. Lin Dunn is trying to give Catchings significant stretches of rest, presumably because she sees the same things I do – Catch already looks, for want of a better word, tired. She’s missing layups, and her jumpers are repeatedly coming up short, a common sign of fatigue. She’s always been the key player for Indiana at both ends of the floor, but the load placed on her due to all the missing options definitely seems to be taking its toll. It’s also made more difficult when neither Jessica Breland or Sasha Goodlett are earning any decent minutes as backup to Catchings and Larkins, so the starters wear down even further. Hopefully Douglas will be back soon, and that should at least allow them to eke out some wins. With teams like Washington, Chicago and New York looking improved in the early days of the season, making the playoffs in the East doesn’t look like being such a cakewalk this year. The Fever need to at least stay in touch until their pieces start coming back together.
The WNBA announced that All-Star balloting will open this Sunday. As ever, it’s ridiculous to be voting on All-Stars when the season’s barely begun, but that’s an inevitable side-effect of the short season. On the bright side, the WNBA has followed the NBA’s lead and switched to a 2-backcourt/3-frontcourt voting balance, which reflects the modern game better than the old 2-guards/2-forwards/1-center format.
Friday June 14th (tomorrow):
Connecticut @ New York, 7.30pm ET. The line is New York -1.5, and I’ll take the Liberty to keep up their home winning streak. A Laimbeer squad will lay Charles out before letting her go 13-17.
Seattle @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. Atlanta -9 is the line, and it’s only that low because Sancho Lyttle’s in France. I’ll take the Dream to run away from the Storm regardless.
Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET. Tulsa are getting 10.5 on their own floor, and I’ll take the Shock to at least keep it in single-digits.
Los Angeles @ Phoenix, 10pm ET. Phoenix -1.5 is giving the Mercury an awful lot of credit for one win. Give me LA on the road, please.