Lineups: Both teams went with the same starters they used in the first round. On the bench, there was good news for Chicago with Jessica Breland dressed and ready to play a few minutes, albeit with heavy strapping surrounding her recently-injured right shoulder.
Story of the Game: It was clear from the opening minutes that I’d only been half-right in my preview yesterday when it came to the defensive matchups for Game 1. Chicago were keeping Elena Delle Donne away from Tamika Catchings as expected, with Tamera Young covering the Fever star. But rather than leaving the likes of Marissa Coleman and Karima Christmas to guard Delle Donne, Catchings took on that responsibility herself. As usual, Indiana were perfectly willing to switch on a lot of ball-screens, but their veteran leader – who’s built her career on defense and effort above all else – was the primary option to cover the Sky’s most dangerous weapon.
Indiana were the better team for most of the opening quarter, but without managing to pull away too far on the scoreboard. Point guard Briann January was aggressive offensively, hitting from outside and getting to the rim once or twice – although she let Courtney Vandersloot go by her a little too easily on the other end. The Fever were also running a lot of four-out, one-in plays, pulling the size of Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles out to the perimeter while posting up wings like Coleman and Shavonte Zellous, or Karima Christmas once she came off the bench. The Fever like to use Zellous in particular for those sets, because she’s usually got a size advantage on opposing shooting guards. Epiphanny Prince and Allie Quigley both give up several inches to her in this series.
Chicago stayed in it thanks to strong play from Fowles in the paint, running the floor hard and getting deep early position on Erlana Larkins. The Sky were also picking up offensive rebounds, partly because of the way Indiana’s defensive scheme works. Their bigs show so hard on screens to challenge the ballhandler that the Chicago posts were rolling into plenty of space behind them, and if the shot went up over the top, it was usually the Sky players who had interior position for the board. Also, with Delle Donne largely playing around the perimeter, Catchings was dragged outside leaving Larkins as the only Fever rebounder near the rim. Indiana led by just three after the opening quarter.
Bench-heavy lineups closed out the first quarter and opened the second for both teams, and scored reasonably well – although much of that was due to the respective defense of those reserves. Once most of the starters were back out, it was Indiana who closed the half strongly and established a lead going into the break. Larkins was in foul trouble thanks to her battle with Fowles and some silly swipes, leaving Krystal Thomas to play more minutes than anticipated. But she survived perfectly well – she’s done a solid job when called upon to guard the dominant centers around the league this season, while sitting on the sidelines for most other games – and Indiana did their damage from outside. Back-to-back threes from January and Zellous were key, with extra space offered up due to Vandersloot limping around the floor after being crushed by a screen her teammates failed to warn her about. Indiana had played with more pace throughout the first half, and it led to better rebounding in the second quarter and their own run of offensive boards. They led by nine at the break.
Both Catchings and Delle Donne were limited offensively in the first half. Delle Donne had a couple of early buckets and a couple right at the end, but wasn’t nearly as involved in the offense as Chicago would’ve liked. Catchings was having trouble converting anything with Young all over her. The Fever tried to post up Catchings on their opening possession of the second half – showing obvious intent to get her the ball inside where she could use her strength – but the entry pass was never on. The intent was there, but Young was doing her job.
The third quarter was slow-paced, attritional action that didn’t change much on the scoreboard. Larkins picked up her fourth and fifth fouls in quick succession, bringing Thomas back in and helping put Indiana in the penalty very early in the period. So Chicago piled up a lot of points at the foul line, but the Fever scraped together enough offense to keep their lead around 10. Zellous continued to utilise her size advantage over Prince and Quigley, before Maggie Lucas came off the bench and added a tough runner in the lane and a three from the corner. Chicago couldn’t quite get the comeback rolling.
Until the start of the fourth quarter. Lin Dunn was still trying to buy some rest for her key starters, and that didn’t go so well once Lucas cooled off. Chicago were getting the ball in the paint, winning the battle on the glass again, and while Dunn rushed to get January, Zellous, Catchings and Larkins back in the game, Indiana’s lead dwindled away. Even with them back, the Fever struggled to arrest the momentum that Chicago had suddenly built. A Quigley three – Chicago’s only make from beyond the arc all night – and a three-point play from Fowles after she won yet another fight for an offensive board cut the gap to a single point, and completed a 14-1 run for the Sky. Just like in the final game of their series with Atlanta, a fourth-quarter charge had pulled Chicago right back into the game.
Zellous hit a big three moments after that Fowles putback to at least give Indiana some breathing room, and then defense dominated for a long stretch at both ends of the floor. After all their good work early in the fourth, Chicago started settling for some terrible shots, with a Fowles elbow jumper and Prince forced three the lowlights. The whole game had slowed down, and on the rare occasions that either side created a decent shot, they weren’t hitting. But it was Indiana who eventually made the big plays down the stretch. With barely a minute left they tried to post up Catchings, and rather than let Young do the solid work she’d been successful with all evening Quigley came running down to double-team. Catchings saw the extra defender coming, kicked the ball to a wide open Zellous, and she drilled another huge three. They were nearly five minutes apart, but her two triples were technically back-to-back field goals, and they were the backbreaking plays in the game.
After barely playing in the fourth quarter, Vandersloot came back in for the possession that followed for Chicago, turned the ball over in trying to force a pass to Delle Donne, and that was essentially that. Another turnover on a five-seconds inbounding violation just compounded the misery for Chicago in the closing moments.
Key Players: The backcourt of January and Zellous did much of the offensive damage for Indiana. January did most of her work early in the game, but Zellous kept it going a little more consistently and then hit those two huge shots to seal the win. January did a nice job running the offense and occasionally penetrating and kicking as well, although the Fever didn’t hit that many shots over the course of the evening. As is often the case, their battling and energetic defense did a lot of the work, and they found ways to scrape out the necessary offense. Catchings was quiet and Larkins heavily limited by her foul trouble. They’ll be hoping to get more out of Catchings in the remainder of the series, and much of the next two days will likely be spent working on ways to get her the ball in better positions to attack Young.
The box score signals two clear, interconnected areas where Chicago came up short in this game. They turned the ball over 14 times to Indiana’s six (leading to a huge 23-2 discrepancy in points-off-turnovers), and therefore took 15 fewer shots than the Fever. Both teams piled up offensive boards. Chicago have never been great at forcing turnovers – their defense is generally geared around containment and forcing misses, rather than grabbing steals – but they have to avoid the mistakes that give away their own possessions cheaply. There weren’t that many passes flying out of bounds or clean strips – it’s mental errors like offensive fouls or forcing passes into areas where there isn’t enough space that they’ve got to avoid. Beyond that, it’s as simple as needing some of their perimeter players to produce. Delle Donne only took 12 shots for 14 points, but it’s going to be tough for her to dominate with Catchings all over her and the rest of Indiana’s defense leaning her way. Fowles had a strong game in the paint and on the boards, and can’t be expected to produce much more. They need Quigley or Prince to step up and make shots, or this series could be over on Labor Day afternoon.
Notes of Interest: Chicago didn’t use a lot of on-ball screens beyond their typical high picks in the horns set, despite Indiana’s willingness to switch. They can force virtually any matchup they want with a decent screen (or sometimes even a half-hearted one). Putting the ball in Delle Donne’s hands and trying to switch someone other than Catchings onto her seems a sensible option that we didn’t see them try much in Game 1. Expect the Sky to at least give it a shot in Game 2.
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 3.30pm ET, Mercury leads best-of-three 1-0