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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Does Atlanta Have the Fever’s Number? Regular-Season Series Sweep May Not Tell the Entire Tale

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Photo Caption: The WNBA Eastern Conference Finals between the top-seeded Indiana Fever and the No. 4-seed, reigning Eastern Conference champs the Atlanta Dream, tip off Thursday evening at 7:00 p.m. at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The series will feature match-ups between two leading WNBA MVP candidates, the Fever’s Tamika Catchings (left) and the Dream’s Angel McCoughtry (right).

Photo Credits: Catchings Photo by Full Court Press/Teri Priebe; McCoughtry Photo Courtesy Atlanta Dream

By Mel Greenberg

When the WNBA Western Conference Finals tip off in the Target Center in Minneapolis Thursday, the contest will feature a battle between something new in the top-seeded Minnesota Lynx, who are making their first-ever appearance in a conference final after two previous early exits in 2003 and 2004, and something old in the third-seeded Phoenix Mercury, who won the WNBA title in 2007 and 2009 before falling to Seattle in the Western Conference Finals a year ago. 

In contrast, the Eastern Conference Finals offer a pair of opponents, both of whom have experienced recent success at this stage of the playoffs.

The third-seeded Atlanta Dream, who have reached the postseason three straight times after their woeful 4-30 launch in 2008, won the East as the conference’s fourth seed last year, toppling the New York Liberty, 2-0, before dropping three straight, albeit narrow, losses in the WNBA championship series to the Seattle Storm.

A season earlier, in one of the fiercest battles in recent memory, the Indiana Fever, who will host Game One at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Thursday beginning at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, reached the championship round where they lost to Phoenix, who came back from a 1-2 deficit to take the series in a decisive Game Five.

Both teams will be eager for a chance at redemption, and though Indiana, the East’s top seed, holds the better overall record, some might consider fourth-seeded Atlanta the favorite. The Dream seemed to have the Fever’s number this year, sweeping the regular-season head-to-heads between the two teams 4-0.

But does that simple statistic tell the whole story? Probably not.

On the other hand, the Fever’s overall regular-season supremacy probably doesn’t say that much about this series either. Though Indiana owns the home-court advantage, the Dream were the best road bunch in the East and winning playoff openers away from Atlanta is nothing new. Coach Marynell Meadors’ squad won openers twice in the two East playoff series a year ago. This year, the Dream rallied in the fourth quarter last week in Uncasville—the toughest venue in the league this season for visitors—downing the Sun in Game One of the conference semifinals. On Sunday, back at home, they once again came from behind to dispatch the second-seeded Sun, who had tied with the Fever for the best regular-season record in the East.

“We’re not afraid of Atlanta,” Indiana coach Lin Dunn exclaimed Monday night after the home-standing Fever dispatched the Liberty in Game Three in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and avenging their ouster by New York last season, also in Game Three, but then on the road at Madison Square Garden.

Dunn points out that Indiana was never at full strength in any of its losses this season to Atlanta. The two met most recently on the final day of the season at Conseco in a game won by Atlanta as the Fever rested Tamika Catchings, who had suffered as bruised knee two days earlier on the road at the Liberty’s temporary home in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Erin Phillips, who moved into a starting role in the backcourt after Briann January went down early in the season an ACL knee injury, also did not play because of a sprained ankle that has since healed.

July 19: Indiana @ Atlanta: 84-74

The Fever had lost their starting point guard, January, less than three weeks before they met Atlanta for the first time this season, on July 19 in Atlanta, and were still trying to find the right mesh in their revised starting rotation.

Of course, the Dream were still battling problems of their own. Most significantly, starting center Sancho Lyttle, who had missed the early season while competing for the Spanish National Team in Eurobasket Women 2011, was sidelined with back problems. Moreover, McCoughtry, saddled with foul troubles, spent only 19 minutes on the floor. Nonetheless, the Dream came out on top in that contest by a 10-point margin, 84-74.

But despite the final score, the two teams were close to even in most statistical categories. The Dream made four more shots from the field than the Fever. The Dream also dominated the blocks stat line, swatting down 10 Indiana launches.

Catchings had 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in that contest, while Phillips had what was for her a monster game, notching 21 points. Former Ohio State star Jessica Davenport, off the bench, scored 12, but Katie Douglas struggled from the field, scoring just four points.

The Dream, meanwhile, displayed better balance, with multiple double-digit scorers led by former Duke star Lindsey Harding’s 19 points. Despite her limited playing time, Angel McCoughtry, who like Catchings is a leading candidate for the league’s annual MVP award which has been selected by a national media panel but not yet announced, had 15 points, as did Erika de Souza, who made it a double-double with 11 rebounds. Iziane Castro Marques, who had once been a starter, scored 12 points off the bench.

This outcome of this game was dictated by three factors which may become keys in the upcoming playoff series. First, in what was the first back-to-back victory of the season for Atlanta, the Dream got their transition game clicking. This is a team that loves to run, and that is exactly what they did, out-pacing the Fever in fast-break points, 24-10. Indiana can run itself, but the Fever aren’t likely to out-sprint the Dream. They will need to settle the pace and contain run-outs if they are to prevail in this playoff series.

Second, Atlanta clearly owns a superior low-post game. Even without Lyttle, the Dream out-scored the Fever in the paint, 38-30. And the Fever’s aging center Tammy Sutton-Brown logged just seven points and three boards to deSouza’s double-double, and although Indiana did get some help off the bench from back-up center Jessica Davenport, the latter does not stack up that well against Lyttle, who is now healthy and back in the rotation. The bottom line here is that to change the outcome going forward, Indiana will have to attack the boards as a team, open up the paint with strong perimeter shooting, and then using those openings to attack the basket.

Third, as Indiana coach Lin Dunn pointed out at the time, “The thing about us, we win when we have balanced scoring.’’

“We want five to six players in double figures,’’ Dunn added.

Of course, as the saying goes, “If wishes were fishes we’d all be throwing nets.” Indiana has at times—including during its most recent conference semifinals series against New York—had trouble even getting both its superstars, Douglas and Catchings, firing on all cylinders at the same time, much less getting five to six players in double figures. But they will clearly need to find a more balanced scoring effort if they are to retake the Eastern Conference crown.

Late-Season Match-Ups Yield Similar Results

It would be more than a month before the two teams met again. But they would battle each other three times in the final weeks of the season, beginning with a home-and-home weekend in which the Dream won 86-80 on Friday, August 27, in Indianapolis, and then won again at home in Philips Arena, 92-90, the following Tuesday. The Dream then made it a 4-0 shutout, taking the regular season finale on the road at Conseco Fieldhouse, 93-88.

August 28: Indiana v. Atlanta: 80-86

When the two teams met for the first of their two games in late August, Atlanta shot a sizzling 33-for-60 (55 percent) from the field, while Indiana struggled on offense, with a 32.9 percent effort. What made the game so close was the fact that in the end, the Fever shot only four fewer field goals than the Dream. Indiana also forced the Dream into 17 turnovers, as compared to eight miscues on the Indiana side.

Atlanta got out to an early start in this hard-fought contest, leading by as many as 12 points early on. And though Indiana managed to close a 10-point half-time deficit by late in the third quarter, even taking a small lead early in the fourth, the effort expended may have cost them the ability to maintain that lead down the stretch.

It was once again a balanced scoring effort for the winning side: Atlanta’s McCoughtry posted 20 points; Harding scored 17 and grabbed seven rebounds; Sancho Lyttle, who had been suffering with back problems and did not play in the first head-to-head between the two teams, had 10 points and nine rebounds; de Souza notched 14 points; and Castro Marques chipped in 11 off the bench.

Indiana’s Catchings had 22 points, Tangela Smith scored 15, and Douglas had 14 points. The Fever bench, which was productive all season, scored 20 points.

The lesson from this game: If it hopes to prevail, Indiana cannot afford to let Atlanta get out early, then expend an extraordinary effort trying to span the gap. The Fever’s Catchings said it best:

“When you dig yourself into a hole that big against a great team like that, it’s hard. ... It takes a lot of energy.”

On the whole, Atlanta is the younger, quicker team, better able to recover from a slow start. Indeed, they have made it their forte throughout the season.

August 30: Indiana @ Atlanta: 90-92

Three days later, in the third game of the season between the two teams and the closest of the regular-season contests by far, Lyttle drained a jumper with 0.9 seconds left to win it for the Dream.

McCoughtry had 28 points; Lyttle finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds; while Armintie Price scored 16 points and Harding scored 11 for the Dream.

Meanwhile, Phillips once again came up big for Indiana with a 21-point outing. Catchings notched 20, to go with seven boards, three assists and three steals (but four turnovers); Douglas had 15; Tangela Smith contributed 11; and off the bench, Shavonte Zellous, the former Pittsburgh star, had 11 points and five rebounds.

Apart from demonstrating that Atlanta is a far more formidable team that its regular-season record may cause it to appear, this game signaled just how evenly matched these two teams can be when everyone is healthy and how exciting their upcoming series may well be.

If one goes searching for other keys to the outcome of that playoff series, they may find it in this stat: The Fever committed 19 turnovers while the Dream committed nine.

Indeed, it was an Armintie Price swipe of an errant Catchings’ pass in the final seconds that set up Lyttle’s game winner.

So, the Fever will definitely need to keep a better handle on the basketball in the face of the Dream’s quick-handed ball thieves if Indiana hopes to prevail.

One other moral to be gleaned from this game: Never count Atlanta out. The Fever led, 88-83, heading into the final two minutes, but the Dream never quit, and it was their persistent defense—against one of the best defensive teams in the league—that in the end dictated the outcome. (Of course, a flagrant foul by Zellous in the game’s waning minutes—which Atlanta turned into four quick points—didn’t help Indiana much either.

September 11: Indiana v. Atlanta: 88-93

It would be a mistake to make too much of the final regular-season meeting between this pair—a game in which Indiana had nothing at stake and Atlanta had its seeding on the line, a match in which the Fever could rest secure in sitting out its MVP candidate. Still there are lessons to be learned even from this game.

The first is that even without Catchings—and for that matter, Phillips—the Fever are almost good enough to go toe to toe with the Dream.

McCoughtry had a monster scoring game with 32 points, but Douglas negated most of that by scoring 30 of her own.

Harding had 13 points and former Duke star Alison Bales came off the bench in the post for to log 15 for the Dream..

But the Fever’s Smith countered with 15, Zellous posted 10, and Davenport scored 15 off the bench for Indiana.

Still, the operative word here is “almost.” In the end, Indiana would not prevail with Catchings sitting on the sidelines, and it can ill afford for her to disappear as she appeared to do after being all but neutralized by Nicole Powell in the first two games of the Fever’s conference semifinals series against New York.

In that final game with Catchings and Phillips looking on from the sidelines, Atlanta dominated the boards for the first time in the four meetings, out-rebounding the Fever, 44-30. And turnovers again were a problem for the Fever, committing 16 to Atlanta’s nine.

Can the Fever Turn Things Around in the Postseason?

Bottom line: If forced to make a call, you’d have to give the edge to the team that went 4-0 in the regular-season. But most of those games were close—one of them a virtual draw—and even without its stars, Indiana has shown an ability to go toe to toe with the upstarts from Atlanta. Minor adjustments in any of those regular-season games could have led to a different outcome.

Indiana needs to cut down on turnovers, make its shots, and hold Atlanta in check on the backboards and in transition if the Fever hope to recoup their Eastern Conference crown. They also need to answer what has, to date, been the greater balance of the Dream offense. Above all, Atlanta will need MVP-quality games from both Catchings and Douglas, and someone else—perhaps Phillips, who has done well against the Dream this season—will have to deliver some serious offense as well. Finally, if ever the tired cliche about playing the full 40 minutes applied, this series would be the place. The Fever cannot afford to get down early, nor to take their foot off the pedal down the stretch even if they are holding a lead.

Conversely, Atlanta will need to minimize Catchings and Douglas, while still making sure someone else such as Phillips doesn’t take over for the Fever. They will need to capitalize not only on their quickness in transition and post dominance, but also on their defense to force turnovers and grab steals.

Incidentally, if Atlanta makes the final the Dream will cost Meadors a trip to Europe. Meadors is also serving as an assistant to UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who is taking the U.S. Senior Women’s National Team (or at least the pieces of it who aren’t tied up in the WNBA playoffs) on a five-game, training-exhibition tour to Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary for a pre-Olympic warm-up.

Auriemma won’t be left to his own devices, though—DePaul coach Doug Bruno and former Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom are also assistants to Auriemma, though his official staff for the London Games next summer has yet to be named.

Up Next

Should Phoenix upset Minnesota in the West, then home-court advantage in the best-of-five finals would go to either Indiana, which had 21 wins, or Atlanta, which had 20, since the Mercury won 19. However, if Minnesota comes out on top, its league-best 27-7 record will earn the Lynx home-court rights over either team to emerge out of the East.


Originally published Thu, September 22, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
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14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
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20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
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25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
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Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.