Lineups: New York made the change I suggested might happen in yesterday’s preview, benching Avery Warley-Talbert in favour of combining Swin Cash and Alex Montgomery at the forward spots. It was a clear effort to match up with Tamika Catchings, who helped tear New York apart when these teams met five days ago. The Fever, unsurprisingly, went with the same regular lineup they used in that previous game. Their bench was one player short, with Layshia Clarendon sidelined by a sore back if you believe the box score, or a hip spasm if you listen to Chris Denari, the Fever commentator. Probably just different descriptions for the same pain.
Story of the Game: The idea appeared to be that Montgomery would guard Catchings, but with Cash becoming the power forward when New York had the ball. Whatever the plan, it didn’t go well for the Liberty. Indiana were the team with all the confidence and energy, and it didn’t take long for that to show up on the scoreboard. The Liberty tried to go inside to Tina Charles as usual, but between Erlana Larkins and plenty of help, even that was largely unsuccessful – and unlike in Sunday’s clash between these teams, no one else was hitting anything for New York either.
Indiana pushed when they had the chance, looking to pick up cheap points whenever possible, but it was scarcely even necessary. They were moving the ball well, finding the open player, and knocking down shots. Catchings took a little while to come into the game, but attacked Plenette Pierson as soon as she came in at the first timeout, and joined in the scoring for Indiana. They led by 10 at the end of the first quarter, and the momentum was building.
Even with a bench-heavy lineup in the game – Sydney Carter, Maggie Lucas, Karima Christmas, Natasha Howard and Lynetta Kizer opened the second period for Indiana – the Fever just kept rolling. New York couldn’t find any rhythm offensively, couldn’t pierce the Indiana defense, so they just ground to a halt. The Fever starters gradually reintegrated, Catchings, Briann January and Shavonte Zellous continued to hit shots, and the lead just kept growing. By halftime Indiana were up by 25 and the Liberty were on course for another embarrassing hammering.
In all fairness to New York, after the dismal, lifeless performance in the first half, they did produce enough energy and effort to make Indiana a little nervous in the second half. The gap was down to 18 at the end of the third quarter, and Lin Dunn felt the need to bring all her starters back in early in the fourth to preserve the lead. The Liberty came within 12, but a run of offensive rebounds for Indiana, led by Christmas, preserved several possessions and helped the Fever survive. New York had dug themselves far too big of a hole to clamber out of.
Key Players: For the second game in a row, Catchings visibly led the way for a team that needs her to be their driving force. The whole Fever squad showed great energy in the first half and played New York off the floor for that opening 20 minutes, but they take their inspiration from Catchings. January, Zellous and Christmas were all important as well – and Larkins’s defensive efforts on Charles continued to impress – but they follow Catch’s lead.
While they’ve often fought back to at least make the scorelines respectable, New York have basically been heavily outplayed in four of their last five games. That’s a depressing way to perform when your season’s on the line and you’re searching for wins to make the playoffs. They were just blown off the court in this game until Indiana relaxed a little too much in the second half. Charles could never really get rolling, Cappie Pondexter barely reminded anyone she was playing until the closing stages when the contest was virtually over, and the rest of the team have been proving they weren’t a strong enough supporting cast all season long. It just wasn’t good enough.
Notes of Interest: Despite losing four of their last five games, the Liberty are still in with a chance of making the playoffs. This result put both the Indiana Fever and Chicago Sky into the postseason, but if New York win their final two games and Washington lose their last two, the Liberty can squeak in. It’s not quite that simple, because if Chicago or Indiana lose their remaining games as well and turn it into a three-way tie things get more complicated, but that’s the basics of New York’s final hope. Their chances end tonight if Washington beat Connecticut – more on the intrigue within that game in the previews below.
Washington @ Connecticut, 7pm ET. It’s a bizarre situation for the Sun heading into this game. They’re much better off losing. And not just to the traditional extent where any team that’s been eliminated from the playoffs is better off losing to increase their lottery chances. Connecticut own New York’s first-round pick in the 2015 draft as part of the Tina Charles trade, so obviously they’d like New York to finish the season with as poor a record as possible – and outside the playoffs. If the Sun lose tonight, they confirm Washington’s playoff spot, and drop New York definitively into the lottery. So if one of Chiney Ogwumike’s other teeth happens to be hurting, or Katie Douglas’s back is playing up, of Kelly Faris just happens to deserve 35 minutes of playing time tonight, don’t be too surprised. Of course, Connecticut have done a perfectly good job of losing games for most of the season, without even trying. The Mystics will have Kia Vaughn back from her brief suspension, which will help them, plus they need to figure out if Tayler Hill or Kalana Greene can be trusted to play meaningful minutes if Kara Lawson’s ankle doesn’t heal in time for the playoffs. But above all else, they need to get in.
Tulsa @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET. Outside of lottery chances for Tulsa, this game means absolutely nothing. Atlanta have literally nothing to play for. They’ll have home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and in any WNBA Finals against a non-Mercury or Lynx opponent, and can’t catch Phoenix or Minnesota for home-court against either in they face them in the Finals. So Angel McCoughtry will probably continue to rest her feet, and anyone else with any minor injuries will likely sit out as well. The Dream might want to gather a little momentum and confidence heading into the playoffs, considering they’ve lost 9 of their last 12 games, but they’ll probably be more concerned with rest and avoiding injury.
Minnesota @ San Antonio, 8pm ET. The Stars still need one more win, or one more Seattle loss, to confirm their playoff spot. They’d probably also like to prove to themselves that they can actually beat the Lynx, considering there’s still a decent chance that these teams will be facing each other in the first round – and Minnesota have won all four clashes so far this season. Seimone Augustus apparently hasn’t made the trip for the Lynx, which isn’t a surprise considering her knee problems this year and the meaninglessness of the result to Minnesota. Also, surely even Cheryl Reeve will give her starters some extra rest in a game like this. So if San Antonio are ever going to beat the Lynx, this is probably the time.
Seattle @ Los Angeles, 10.30pm ET. The Storm will likely know by the time this game tips off whether they’re still playing for anything or not. If San Antonio lose the game above, they’re still in with a chance of the playoffs; if the Stars win, Seattle will be in the lottery for the first time since 2003. Having finally clinched a playoff spot themselves, maybe the Sparks will play a little more relaxed, but unless they particularly want to avoid Phoenix in favour of playing Minnesota in the first round, they may not care. Nneka Ogwumike twisted an ankle in their last game, so might sit out, and if anyone else needs rest Los Angeles may well give it to them. It’ll be interesting to see if Kristi Toliver can stay hot after lighting up the Lynx in their last game, or if that was just a fluke occurrence. She generally plays well against the Storm, who’ll just be hoping that the result still means something for them.