Lineups: Phoenix stuck with the big lineup that’s been working for them lately, but Indiana made yet another switch to their starting lineup, this time specifically tailored to the Mercury. Former Phoenix center Krystal Thomas, who’s barely played for most of the season in Indiana, came in to start the game and guard Brittney Griner. Karima Christmas dropped to the bench, while Erlana Larkins slid over to power forward.
Story of the Game: Indiana were in front and on top for the vast majority of this game, but could never quite kill it off. They played with fantastic energy in the first half, doubling and rotating when they needed to on defense but recovering well to challenge every shot. They got caught out a couple of times with Candice Dupree scoring over smaller defenders in the post after switches, but in general they kept Phoenix very quiet.
On offense, the Fever did a good job of attacking the rim and maintaining their aggression despite the Mercury’s size and length. Obviously, that was easier when Griner was resting, but they kept it up even when she was in the game. Marissa Coleman was also having one of those nights when pullup jumpers and fadeaways were dropping, which helped boost the offense.
Thomas had the first half of her WNBA life, playing effective defense against Griner and the Mercury drivers in the paint, and even chipping in with a couple of buckets when the ball fell her way. She was getting lots of help whenever necessary, and Phoenix struggled to get Griner the ball in the first place, but when Lin Dunn dreamed how inserting Thomas into the lineup would play out, that first half was almost exactly it. Indiana led by nine at the break.
The Fever looked outstandingly well prepared for playing Phoenix, knowing where the holes in the Mercury’s defense were going to crop up before they showed themselves. But Phoenix wouldn’t go away. They still had Dupree finishing plays inside, and Penny Taylor helped in the third quarter as well with her familiar tricky spinning drives into the lane. Phoenix were also starting to shoot a heap of free throws, with Diana Taurasi leading the way after being antagonised by Briann January’s physical defense earlier in the game. Opponents often find they don’t like Diana when she’s angry.
January had a poor game, and was the central figure in the turnover problems that seriously damaged Indiana in the second half. Too many passes went flying out of bounds, or hit a teammate in the feet rather than the hands. And in the final period Phoenix finally completed the comeback. Indiana’s offense had tired and stagnated, while the Mercury were still energised by their charge back into the game. DeWanna Bonner – whose defense has been deservedly castigated here many times in recent years – had two crucial steals in the latter stages. The first created four points because it led to a clear path foul, the two resulting free throws, and then a Dupree finish in the lane. The second came on the ensuing inbounds play, just to further demoralise the Fever.
Indiana were given a chance when Taurasi fouled Shavonte Zellous on a late three, with the resulting foul shots making it a one-point game. But Sandy Brondello drew up a beautiful play in the timeout that followed, confusing the Indiana defense and leaving Taurasi open for three. She drilled it, and that was just about the end of Indiana’s chances.
Key Players: Dupree was the most consistent threat for Phoenix over the course of the night, but Taylor’s ‘old man game’ moves helped drag them back, and Taurasi’s driving and big-shotmaking finished it off. Griner was swallowed whole by Indiana’s defense and faded from the game badly, which was a discouraging sign, despite her six blocks.
Indiana actually played a heck of a game, but just couldn’t keep it up for all 40 minutes. After recent close losses to Tulsa and Minnesota, they’ll be very disappointed to let this one slip away as well. Thomas did what was asked of her on the defensive end, and may well have earned more minutes even against other opponents. Lynetta Kizer is the far more talented offensive player, but Thomas is the vastly better defender. Coleman and Zellous did most of their scoring, with some help from Larkins and Christmas, but it was a collective effort that nearly held off one of the better teams in the league. Unfortunately, ‘nearly’ doesn’t count for anything in the standings.