By the Numbers (over entire regular season):
Chicago (24-10) vs Indiana (16-18)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 102.08 (3rd in WNBA) – 95.37 (8th)
Points conceded per 100 possessions: 94.95 (4th) – 95.27 (5th)
Rebounding percentage: .525 (1st) – .503 (5th)
Season series between the teams: Indiana won 3-1
06/22 @Ind, Sky won 71-61
08/03 @Ind, Fever won 79-58
08/06 @Chi, Fever won 64-58
09/06 @Chi, Fever won 82-77
It seemed only appropriate to start here. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen me talking about how interesting this matchup could be since sometime in June. Here we finally are in September, and I got what I wanted. The reasons this clash is so fascinating are pretty obvious. The Sky have been the best team in the Eastern Conference for most of the season (once Atlanta’s smoking hot start cooled off dramatically). They’ve got the player who reclaimed the ‘Best Center in the World’ crown this season in the paint, and the runaway Rookie of the Year, both of whom have been touted as MVP candidates. But they’ve literally never been here before. In their eighth year of existence, this is the franchise’s first visit to the postseason. In the other corner, we have the reigning champs. The Fever brought back virtually every meaningful piece from their title run last year, but a ridiculous run of injuries led to a difficult season where it sometimes looked like they’d struggle to even reach the playoffs. They eventually made it in, albeit with a losing record. But they’ve been here, done it, bought the T-shirt and won the ring. And they’re healthier now than they’ve been practically all season. So who triumphs – the experienced campaigners, or the young upstarts?
It’s also not just that Indiana are more experienced – they’ve also consistently had the Indian sign over this particular opponent. They’re 3-1 this season against Chicago (2-0 in games where Elena Delle Donne and Tamika Catchings both actually played), and a remarkable 27-6 since the Sky franchise began. If there was one team that history suggested Chicago would’ve been better off avoiding in their first ever playoff series, it’s the Indiana Fever.
But of course, this isn’t your mother’s Chicago Sky. The addition of Elena Delle Donne finally took them over the top this season, from a team that everyone was always waiting on to break out to actually becoming that team. Her shooting talent from outside, her ability to create her own shot or draw fouls, even the way she can grab a defensive rebound and then immediately turn up the floor and start running the offense – it’s opened things up for the Sky. It’s almost overshadowed another outstanding season from Sylvia Fowles in the paint, leading the league in field goal percentage and rebounding while producing 16.5 points per game, while being the centerpiece of Chicago’s resolute defense. The Fever have a lot to deal with, and we haven’t even mentioned the constant potential for Epiphanny Prince to break out as a scorer from the perimeter, the hugely improved point guard play from Courtney Vandersloot, or the significant role-playing help from pieces like Swin Cash and Tamera Young.
And despite that historical record, the Sky present some awkward matchups for Indiana. Fowles has a significant height advantage on every post player they have, and after Katie Douglas’s return they’ve only got two-and-a-bit posts to start with. Erlana Larkins will do everything she can to keep Fowles out of deep position in the paint and fight her for rebounds, and she’s proven capable of putting up a fight in that contest in the past, but it’s not a remotely easy task. With Jessica Breland released due to Douglas’s return to fitness, Larkins and Catchings are backed up only by overmatched rookie Jasmine Hassell, and Karima Christmas sliding inside from the wing. Any foul trouble or injuries to Larkins or Catchings, and the Fever are in deep trouble.
Douglas’s comeback does extra interesting things to this matchup on both sides of the floor. She gives the Fever another ballhandler and perimeter shooting threat, but she’s only been back for two games and hasn’t hit much from outside yet. Assuming she starts in place of Christmas – which seemed to be the plan in the only game since she returned where the Fever used their full remaining roster – it shakes up the defensive assignments. Indiana switched heavily on defense in their games against Chicago – even more than they typically do against teams league-wide – but Christmas was usually the initial defender on Delle Donne. That job now falls to either Catchings or Douglas, until someone makes a substitution. Either can do it, but Douglas is still shaking off the rust, and they like to have Catchings on smaller threats so that she can play some ‘free safety’ defense. Plus, as always, much of their offense will rely on Catchings. She invariably takes on a heavy load, but trying to shut down Delle Donne on top of everything else might be asking a little much even of the Fever’s veteran leader.
However, the same switch creates a defensive issue for Chicago. They’ve been ‘hiding’ Delle Donne on defense all season, letting Fowles and Cash take the primary opposing frontcourt threats while she covered whichever player was likely to cause her the fewest problems. It was Christmas in every game she played against the Fever this season. So who does she guard now? They won’t want Fowles on Catchings unless absolutely necessary, so Big Syl takes Larkins. That leaves Delle Donne and Cash to split Douglas and Catchings. My guess is that Cash will stick with Catchings as she has in most games this season, and they’ll see how the rookie gets along with Douglas. It could get interesting, especially if Indiana bring Douglas out to have her run the offense (as she did for long stretches in their final game of the season). Delle Donne isn’t a bad defender, per se – she uses her length and natural hand-eye coordination to good effect at times for blocks and generally just to get in the way – but they’ve been hiding her for good reason. The Sky won’t particularly want her defending the de facto point guard. It could be a case of waiting to see which side blinks first, if one team manages to exploit the new matchups at a particular end of the floor.
But beyond those intricacies, there are more basic elements that will decide this series. Can Indiana continue to force the volume of turnovers that their high-energy, active defense always strives for – when facing a team that’s done a vastly better job of taking care of the ball this season? Will the Epiphanny Prince who actually hits an occasional shot show up, or will it be the version who’s missed endlessly over the second half of the season? Can Shavonte Zellous take advantage of Prince’s occasionally shaky defense at the other end? Can Indiana get anything from their point guard position, where Briann January has missed so many layups this year that I’ve lost count, rookie Layshia Clarendon is still prone to over-dribbling and horrible turnovers, and head coach Lin Dunn still doesn’t trust Erin Phillips? There are a lot of open questions, including…
Key to Watch: Indiana’s perimeter shooting
The Fever fought to their championship last year by hitting a lot of threes to prop up their often relatively anaemic offense. They still don’t have much of a post attack, and with Fowles patrolling the paint that’s likely to be even more apparent against Chicago. So they’re going to have to shoot well. As I’ve talked about before, they tend to ‘semi-penetrate’ a lot against Chicago, driving a step or two below the free throw line, drawing the corner defender in slightly while she thinks about helping, then kicking to a shooter with a little extra room. But that’s only effective if they can make the shots. Catchings hasn’t shot well from outside for most of the season, while Zellous hasn’t been great lately either. January and Phillips have had hot streaks, but are prone to disappearing (it’s still hard to tell if Phillips is actually healthy). Jeanette Pohlen rarely cracks the rotation. Christmas can make a big shot, but is only 30% from beyond the arc on the year. Douglas has the history, but no present. You can essentially always trust Indiana’s defense to show up, but there’s only so much they can do to stop players like Fowles and Delle Donne. They’re going to have to hit perimeter shots to create enough points to win two games in this series.
The reasons that made me hope for this series for so long are the same ones that make it tough to predict. Indiana have all the history, all the experience, and they consistently beat Chicago. But the Sky have simply been the better team this season. If you’re going to pick an upset in the first-round, this seems like the obvious series to go with. Indiana have shown an ability to keep Delle Donne relatively quiet, and Larkins (with help) can do a decent job on Fowles. But I can’t do it. I don’t trust Indiana to hit enough shots, after a season where we’ve watched their offense repeatedly run the shot clock down to its waning seconds without really going anywhere. They’d need the officials to start making calls when Catchings, Douglas and January throw themselves towards the rim on drives – but at the same time they can’t afford for those calls to be made at the other end, because foul trouble would kill them. And while the return of a player as good as Douglas should be a bonus, shaking up a team this late in the season worries me as well. It’s messing with their rotation and chemistry, even ignoring what it’s done to their backup post situation.
I think it’s going to be tight, I think it’s going to be desperately hard fought, and it wouldn’t exactly shock me if the Fever pulled the upset. But I’m giving the Sky the benefit of the doubt going into their first ever playoff series.
Chicago 2-1, probably by the skin of their teeth.