Indiana Fever (16-18, #2 seed) vs Washington Mystics (16-18, #3 seed)
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 97.64, 5th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 98.76, 7th in WNBA
Points scored per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency): 96.15, 10th in WNBA
Points conceded per 100 possessions (defensive efficiency): 95.40, 3rd in WNBA
Season series tied 2-2:
5/23 @Ind: Mystics win 79-63
6/6 @Was: Fever win 64-61
7/2 @Was: Fever win 80-77
8/8 @Ind: Mystics win 74-61
The Eastern Conference was a mess this season, with a host of teams on very similar levels battling it out until the end. Most observers still have Atlanta as the favourites despite their second half swoon, but will admit that it’s wide open in the East. Which makes this 2-3 matchup especially hard to call. Indiana have been inconsistent all season long, even since Tamika Catchings returned from the back injury which kept her out for the first half of the year. Only a couple of dominant late-season wins over New York secured their playoff spot, and somehow allowed them to sneak into the #2 seed in the East despite a losing record. Washington aren’t so much inconsistent as they’re worryingly vulnerable. They win games by being organised and playing team-oriented basketball, which has a tendency to fall apart when they’re not hitting shots or things start to turn against them. This series is just as open as the overall chase in the East.
This isn’t the same Fever team that we used to watch, known for their hard-nosed and dominating defense, while they slowed things down and almost bored teams into submission on the offensive end. Perhaps more than any other team in the league, they were negatively affected by the introduction of the defensive three-seconds rule before last season, despite not having a big rim-protecting center. It’s changed how and when they can double-team, and removed some of the swarming, threatening aspects of their defense which used to unsettle opponents. At their best, they can still be a very effective, fluid defensive club, and they’re still strong and physical. They tend to rotate and switch a lot, but do it with more security and confidence than teams like Los Angeles who have a similar basic scheme. The core of this team has been together for a long time, so they communicate well, and the rotations are often strong. But they’re not big, and there have been seams to attack in their defense for the last couple of years.
Offensively, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Fever. Catchings got hot in a couple of their late-season games, and it made a huge difference. If she’s leading from the front, knocking down perimeter shots and occasionally attacking off the dribble to collapse the defense, the Fever are likely to start rolling. Her teammates feed off her, and the likes of Briann January and Shavonte Zellous will need to hit some jumpers in this series as well. They’ll also try to use Erlana Larkins in the paint, and she’s a trickier post scorer than you realise at first glance, but probably won’t get too many great looks against the length of Kia Vaughn and Stefanie Dolson. Catchings ought to be able to attack Emma Meesseman and Tianna Hawkins off the dribble, but was actually very poor in the one game where she faced Washington this season. Indiana will need better than that from their leader if they’re going to win this series.
Because while the Mystics don’t have any true star-level players, they’re a very solid team who’ll take advantage if their opponents don’t play to their optimum level. Without any players on their roster particularly recognised for their defense, or any obvious gimmicks that teams wouldn’t be prepared for during the grind of the regular season, Washington were the third-best defensive team in the league this year. They play smart, they follow Mike Thibault’s rules, and they grind you down. Indiana already have a tendency to be dragged into a rut offensively if they can’t get into transition and create quick offense, and that’ll be the ideal sight for Thibault. Expect more shot-clock violations than in a typical best-of-three series.
Offensively, Washington are a dubious enterprise. They went through a horrible stretch in the first half of the season where none of their perimeter players could make shots, and the offense fell apart entirely. Fortunately, Ivory Latta, Bria Hartley, Monique Currie and Kara Lawson grew more accurate as the year wore on, and it helped enormously. But while Meesseman has some nice interior moves and all their posts can hit shots out to mid-range to shift opposing defenses, they’re going to need those guards to knock down open looks in this matchup. In fact, while it’s a simplistic reduction, the outcome of the series could well come down to which side can be most accurate from 18-feet and out. Neither team scores well in the paint, and both defenses tend to focus on keeping opponents away from the rim – so you have to shoot well with the good looks that are on offer.
Important Notes, and Aspects to Watch
Kara Lawson missed the final week of the season due to an ankle injury that Washington were hoping would heal in time for the playoffs. Tayler Hill and Kalana Greene both looked poor in limited minutes while Lawson was out, so Washington will be desperate to have her back. Otherwise Latta and Hartley will be playing very heavy minutes.
Indiana foul a lot. That’s part of how they’ve ‘protected’ the rim this year – by hacking drivers before they get there. Washington need to attack the middle of the defense off the dribble when they can, maybe turning down an occasional open look to drive instead.
Washington have had turnover issues at times this year, and Indiana love to force them. One of the key issues in this series will be how well Washington take care of the ball, and how many points Indiana can create through steals that feed into transition.
Washington have been a deep team under Thibault for the last couple of years, and one of the key elements to their offense was trying out enough viable options and finding a couple who were hot on any given night. But without Lawson they’ve looked a little thin lately. Meanwhile Indiana’s bench has had a couple of good games recently, with Natasha Howard, Karima Christmas and Layshia Clarendon important components. But sometimes Lin Dunn has to be quick with the hook before her reserves give away any advantage her starters have managed to build. So depth could be important, but either team could come out on top in that area on any given night.
Oddly, all four regular season games between these sides were won by the road team, and Indiana actually had a better record on the road this season than at home (Washington were dead even). So home-court may not mean much.
This really could go either way. Kia Vaughn got randomly hot in the final regular season matchup between these two, essentially winning that game for the Mystics, and freak occurrences like that could decide at least a game or two in this series. The experience and veteran nous of the Fever may be just enough to pull them through, led by the force of nature that Catchings can be when she’s on her game. But expect physical, bruising games, that may not be that pretty to watch at times. No quarter will be asked, and none given, and they’ll fight to the end to make it through.
2-1 Indiana, by the skin of their teeth.