By the numbers (over entire regular season):
Atlanta Dream (17-17) vs Indiana Fever (16-18)
Points scored per 100 possessions: 95.19 (9th in WNBA) – 95.37 (8th)
Points conceded per 100 possessions: 93.2 (1st) – 95.27 (5th)
Rebounding percentage: .503 (4th) – .503 (5th)
Season series between the teams: Atlanta won 3-1
05/31 @Ind, Dream won 86-77
06/25 @Atl, Dream won 76-60
08/10 @Ind, Fever won 80-66
09/04 @Atl, Dream won 89-80
So here we are again. Two years ago, Atlanta recovered from losing the opening game in the Eastern Conference Finals to fight past Indiana and make their second consecutive trip to the WNBA Finals. Last year, Indiana lost the opening game in the first-round, before coming back to knock out the Dream – beginning the run that ultimately led to a championship. So there’s plenty of history here. Between them, they’ve provided the East’s representative in the WNBA Finals for each of the last four seasons. We’re looking at two teams who know exactly what this is all about, and know each other incredibly well. So with all this familiarity, and both teams clawing their way to mediocre records this season, what’s going to make the difference in who earns another shot at winning it all?
The regular season encounters this year tell us very little. Partly because at least one important player was either absent back then or will be absent for the playoffs, and partly because this is the playoffs. Indiana didn’t look like the team that had struggled through much of the regular season in the first-round, because they stepped up their game when it mattered and took the Chicago Sky apart. Atlanta had many problems against Washington in the first-round, but eventually stepped up in key areas and came through. It’s simplistic to say, but these teams are close enough that the winner of this series is likely to be decided in large part by who raises their game best for postseason play. Indiana always seem to enjoy playing Chicago, so maybe that helped them in the last round, but they also looked demonstrably ready for playoff basketball. If Atlanta play like they did for most of the series against the Mystics, and the Fever show up like that again, the Dream are in trouble.
A lot of that comes back to Angel McCoughtry. She’s the leader and driving force for Atlanta, but she shot appallingly against Washington when the defense managed to keep her out of the lane and limit Atlanta’s transition chances. Indiana will be trying to do exactly the same thing. Karima Christmas will probably be defending her for most of the series, and is capable of doing a lot of the same things that Monique Currie did for Washington, but the Fever don’t have quite the same size to clog the lane as the Mystics. And as we saw in the Game 3 decider, Washington were eventually hurt by foul trouble. While Indiana’s domination of Chicago masked the issue in the first-round, the Fever are still desperately thin in the post. Foul trouble for Tamika Catchings or Erlana Larkins could cause real problems, because there’s nowhere much else to go.
Ultimately, the defenses of these teams share a lot of characteristics. Both depend on speed and aggression, and they finished 1st and 2nd in the WNBA in forcing turnovers this season. Both like to create points from their defense, although it tends to translate in a slightly different way. Atlanta use the transition game created by steals as a central part of their offense, infusing their attack with pace and trying to keep that momentum flowing even off rebounds and defensive stops. They most frequently get in trouble when they’re forced into a halfcourt game and have to find a way to execute without being able to run on the break. For Indiana it’s more of a separate element. They’ll take cheap points when they’re available, but they’re also one of the most deliberate and slow-paced teams in the league – whereas Atlanta played the fastest pace in the WNBA in 2013. The Fever can sometimes become stagnant themselves in the halfcourt, but they’ll be happy if this series becomes a plodding, walk-it-up, halfcourt struggle. Because they’re used to that – Atlanta essentially can’t play that way.
There’s also a significant contrast between these teams in their perimeter shooting. After the way Indiana’s shooters lit up Chicago, Atlanta will be scheming to make sure they challenge the Fever on the perimeter. In the length, speed and activity of players like McCoughtry, Armintie Herrington, Tiffany Hayes, Jasmine Thomas and Alex Bentley, they’ve got defenders capable of sticking to Indiana’s perimeter players. Catchings will fire at times from outside – although she’s a much more consistent threat if she finds lanes to drive – but it’s the supporting players like Shavonte Zellous, Briann January and Christmas, plus options like Erin Phillips and Jeanette Pohlen from the bench who can really cause problems. It’s hit-or-miss whether they’ll produce from out there – it was mostly miss for much of the season, before they came up big against the Sky – but you can’t let them get going. Meanwhile, Indiana will actively want Atlanta to shoot from outside. It begins with forcing McCoughtry into shooting contested jumpers, because she’s shown in the past that she’ll just keep flinging the ball up regardless of how many she misses. But keeping Herrington and Hayes out of the lane is vital as well. Apart from an occasional bomb from Hayes, and even more unlikely connections from Thomas or Bentley, the Dream basically can’t shoot. Keep them out of the lane, and you’ve won half the battle.
Key to Watch: Erlana Larkins vs. Erika de Souza
This is going to be so much fun. The final regular season matchup between these teams featured an absolute war between Larkins and Erika in the paint, where Larkins went nuts on the glass and did a fantastic, physical defensive job on Erika – only for the Dream center to go 7-14 for 17 points and 15 rebounds regardless. We’ve just seen Kia Vaughn shut down Erika for most of a series, only for the Brazilian beast to play a key role in the second half push that dragged Atlanta through Game 3. Larkins’s approach to defending Erika will be very similar to Vaughn’s. Fight for position before the ball ever comes anywhere near the lane, making things more difficult immediately. Then stay physical and in contact with de Souza if she tries to make a move to the hoop to score, forcing as many misses as possible. Indiana will send some double-teams to help Larkins out and make Erika more of a passer, but that opens up cutting and passing lanes for the Dream. If Larkins can hold her in check without too much help, it’ll be big for Indiana. Larkins has just done it to the best center in the league in Sylvia Fowles; now she needs to do it again to arguably the league’s second-best center in 2013.
The Larkins-Erika contest is also part of a bigger issue in this series. While Atlanta will pressurise and gamble for steals on the perimeter, they’re also much, much bigger inside than Indiana, especially now Aneika Henry is likely to start at power forward (Sancho Lyttle has been out for 10 weeks now with her broken foot, while Le’coe Willingham missed Games 2 and 3 of the Washington series with a right knee problem – there’s been no real information about Willingham’s potential return, but Henry would likely keep the spot ahead of her anyway). So it’s going to take a collective effort, led by Larkins, Catchings and Christmas, for Indiana to compete on the glass. A central part of Atlanta’s recovery against Washington was due to their collective aggression on the boards, so it should be quite a contest. Expect bodies to go flying on a regular basis.
And don’t forget that this cuts both ways. Atlanta may be much bigger with a Henry/Erika frontcourt, but they also have to guard Tamika Catchings somehow. It would’ve been Willingham’s job (or Lyttle’s, many moons ago), which is the one reason they’ll actually be concerned about getting Le.coe back for this series if possible. Meanwhile, either Henry’s somehow going to have to find the footspeed to deal with Catchings – while they stand back and hope that Catch misses open jumpers – or they’re going to have to twist their matchups around all over the floor to find someone else (like the quicker but much, much smaller Herrington). McCoughtry may also get a try occasionally, but she very rarely guards stars like Catchings – she’s generally on a minor threat like Christmas so that it’s not too dangerous when McCoughtry gets lost or goes freelancing around the floor (or just doesn’t bother getting back on defense at all). If Fred Williams ever tries his small lineup with McCoughtry at power forward – and it’s a much more natural option in this series than it was against Washington, where he basically dumped it – McCoughtry might have to take Catchings occasionally. But Atlanta will try to avoid it.
Finally, having glossed over it in my previews for the first-round and then watched it become a major issue in several series, let’s not overlook the coaching matchup. Williams doesn’t inspire much confidence. He watched his team sleepwalk through Game 1 against Washington without doing anything much to counter what Mike Thibault came up with. His major successful move – introducing Henry – was forced upon him. And McCoughtry continues to jack up an extraordinary number of awful shots. Maybe he deserves some of the credit for the more active, swarming defense that Atlanta produced in Games 2 and 3, but probably not that much. Meanwhile we’ve been watching Lin Dunn craft ways to help the Fever win games for at least a couple of years now. She’s not afraid to mix things up and take a few risks, and her players clearly believe in her and respond to what she asks of them. If this comes down to a chess match between the head coaches, I know who my money’s on.
It’s certainly possible to make a case for both these teams. Atlanta spent the first-round reminding themselves of how they need to play to win playoff games. McCoughtry knows she can penetrate and score against Indiana because she’s done it before, and while she was terrible for much of the Washington series, she eventually made plays when they needed her to. But it was also another reminder of just how dreadful Atlanta can look when you limit their transition game and keep them out of the lane. Indiana, largely speaking, are a smarter and more controlled team than Washington, and should be even better at avoiding turnovers and limiting Atlanta’s pace. Then once this becomes a halfcourt game it’ll be a struggle at both ends of the floor, but it’ll suit Indiana slightly more. I think it’ll be tight, but last year’s champs have a slight edge.
Indiana 2-1, which would mean winning a deciding conference finals game on the road. Just like last year.