In some ways, the prospects for our Eastern and Western Conference Finals in the WNBA this season suggested they would go to type. In the East, we had two teams known for their ability to pressurise and force turnovers. One was the best defense in the league this season, the other has been known as a shut-down defensive squad for years. A classic Eastern defensive battle was on the cards. In the West, we had the team with far and away the best offense in the WNBA this season, against a team known as all-offense, all-the-time for over six years (albeit with some recent hints of defensive interest). So a run-and-gun Western shootout, right? As it turned out, we got the contrast – just not in quite the way that history might’ve suggested.
The evening began in Atlanta, with the Indiana Fever starting another series on the road. That’s what happens when you slide into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record after a constant struggle throughout the regular season. But the Dream had survived problems of their own, collapsing from a 10-1 start to the season and then having to come from 1-0 down in the first-round of the playoffs to fight past Washington. Whoever ultimately makes it out of the East is going to have worked through some significant difficulties to get there.
Dream head coach Fred Williams made a surprisingly active and ballsy move to open the series. After junking his small lineup entirely against the Mystics in the first-round, and making it through that series in part because of his team’s size and offensive rebounding, he immediately went small against Indiana. Both Le’coe Willingham (who started the Washington series at power forward, then missed Games 2 and 3 due to a knee problem) and Aneika Henry (who replaced Willingham) were in uniform and available, but both began the series on the bench. Instead, Angel McCoughtry slid over to the theoretical power forward position, while Armintie Herrington regained her starting spot alongside Tiffany Hayes and Jasmine Thomas on the perimeter. Essentially, it puts four perimeter players on the court with center Erika de Souza. It’s a lineup they used effectively as a change-up during the regular season, especially after Sancho Lyttle got hurt and made their ‘natural’ lineups less effective. We were always likely to see it in this series because Indiana are so small these days with Tamika Catchings at power forward. But it’s the first time Williams has ever used it to start a game. In some ways, it’s the exact opposite of how the Washington series began, where Mike Thibault and the Mystics dictated the action throughout Game 1 and Williams never seemed to have an answer. For once, he had the guts to throw the first punch.
All of that said, the game didn’t begin particularly well for Atlanta. They looked confused on which way they were going on the opening tip, handing Catchings an uncontested layup to start the game. Then Hayes jacked an ugly three on Atlanta’s first possession, and Catchings continued to light them up for the next few minutes of the game. The plan appeared to be to guard her with Hayes – McCoughtry was hiding on Karima Christmas, as expected – and Catchings apparently wasn’t impressed by this idea. She hit jumpers, or attacked Hayes off the dribble and finished inside. It didn’t look like Hayes could handle her. When the game restarted after the first timeout five minutes into the opening quarter, Herrington had switched over onto Catchings, and Plan A appeared to have been thrown out the window.