After a couple of upsets shifted the balance of the WNBA playoffs on opening night, the second evening began with the series that always looked most likely to provide a lower seed surprise. The reigning champion Indiana Fever had struggled through the regular season and finished with a 16-18 record, but they were 3-1 against Chicago, and have repeatedly beaten the Sky over the years. When several players were given the night off for Indiana’s final regular season game, it became pretty clear that the Fever were happy to face Chicago in the first-round. The Sky may have been the best team in the East this season, but the Fever weren’t the least bit afraid to take them on.
However, the task appeared to become more difficult for Indiana before tip-off, when Katie Douglas was ruled out due to more back pain. The Fever had ended up losing out on two counts – Douglas’s return forced them to release backup post Jessica Breland, and now they didn’t have Douglas either. On the bright side, after a season of filling-in and stepping up quite nicely, Karima Christmas was well-prepared to slide back into the starting role that Douglas would’ve taken. Chicago had their regular group to start the game.
The first punch in the coaching battle was thrown by Indiana’s Lin Dunn, with a shift in the defensive matchups. The Fever switch enough that the initial assignments don’t always matter that much, but they had Tamika Catchings on Elena Delle Donne, Christmas on Epiphanny Prince, and Shavonte Zellous on Swin Cash to open the game. Christmas had done most of the work on Delle Donne in the regular season clashes between these teams, with Catchings on Cash and Zellous on Prince, in more ‘natural’ matchups along positional lines. They were obviously happy to take the minimal risk that Cash would use her size and strength to take advantage of being guarded by a perimeter player (and they were proven right). Maybe the changes came from preparing for the series with Douglas in mind as a starter rather than Christmas, but it’s equally possible that Dunn just wanted that extra little edge that nudging your opponent off-balance can provide.
The Sky tried to go inside to Sylvia Fowles, early and often. But Erlana Larkins was doing her typical impressive job of using her body to put Fowles under pressure, making it hard for Fowles to get deep position in the paint and equally tough to finish whenever she did receive the ball. It was very hard work for Big Syl inside early on. Fortunately for Chicago, Delle Donne drew some fouls to head to the free throw line, and exploited Indiana’s switching a couple of times for three-point plays over Briann January on the low block. Chicago’s offense was surviving okay.