Indiana-Connecticut could turn into a playoff chess match

Staff Writer
October 4, 2012 - 10:16pm
Erlana Larkins with the shot attempt with defense by Atlanta's Erika de Souza during game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (Photo by Andrew Snook)

Erlana Larkins with the shot attempt with defense by Atlanta's Erika de Souza during game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (Photo by Andrew Snook)

Sometimes you think you know what’s coming -- but in fact you really don’t.

Atlanta and Indiana had battled all season, and the Dream braintrust was prepared for more of the same after a win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals -- but then Fever coach Lin Dunn suddenly revamped her starting lineup and inserted the smaller (6-1) Erlana Larkins as starting center. Larkins had 20 rebounds in the series-clinching Game 3, and Connecticut coach Mike Thibault now has to prepare for her instead of Tammy Sutton-Brown or Jessica Davenport.

Or does he? Will Dunn make new adjustments going into the Connecticut series? What worked so well against the Dream is less likely to work against the Sun so Dunn will have to decide whether to try to ride the Fever’s current positive momentum or make changes yet again out of the gate.  On the flip side, there's not much motivation for Thibault to roll the dice, given the relative ease of the sweep of  New York Liberty, so expect the Connecticut Sun status quo in Game 1.

Or not.

Overview

Two WNBA greats will be showcased in this series: 2012 MVP Tina Charles of the Sun and Indiana’s Tamika Catchings, the 2011 MVP who won her fifth Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012. 

Connecticut comes into Friday’s (8 p.m. ESPN2) game better rested, having finished off the New York Liberty in two straight last Saturday and having the home court advantage. Fatigue might be a factor for the Fever, who drew the much tougher opponent, and played one more game, in the first round.

Both teams finished the regular season in positive fashion. Connecticut won seven of its last ten while trying to ready star power forward Asjha Jones, who had been nursing a partially torn Achilles tendon since the Olympic break.  Indiana, unsuccessfully trying to catch the Sun for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, won six of its last ten.  Both teams enter this series with the entire roster available to play, though of course at this point in the season, there are often a number of minor injuries which players are fighting through.

 

The franchises share stability of leadership, a key to success in almost any endeavor.  Thibault and staff have been in charge for the entire ten years of Sun existence in Uncasville while Dunn has been the Fever coach for five seasons.  In addition, the supporting cast to each of the superstars has also been on board for several seasons. 

The key difference, though, is where each team looks to score its points. With Olympians Charles and Jones up front, the Sun rightly tends to go inside. Conversely, with Indiana stars Catchings and Katie Douglas tending to play further from the basket, the Fever takes more perimeter shots than the Sun. In each of their four meetings, the Fever attempted six more three-point attempts than Connecticut and unless Dunn has some different cards up her sleeve, expect the same in this series.

History

This pair last met in the 2007 first round, and the Fever advanced 2-1. Prior to that, in 2005 the Sun won a first round meeting 2-0, but in most ways, both are ancient history. This year's teams are different, but both share a common traity: They've been to the WNBA Finals (Indiana once in 2009; Connecticut twice in 2004 and 2005) and never won. 

More recently, Connecticut took the 2012 series three games to one, but the one Indiana victory was a 95-61 rout on June 21. In the most recent game, Sept, 17, Connecticut won 73-67.

Center

Will Dunn keep starting Larkins at center, play her at power forward or just bring her off the bench as was customary during the regular season?

Larkins was one of the stars of the Fever comeback against Atlanta, averaging 16.0 points and 13.5 rebounds in the two wins, but how much can she be counted on against the more mobile Charles?  Even pro-rated for the extra minutes, Larkins ever came close to her recent lofty playoff numbers in those two games, and she is several inches shorter the 6-4 Charles -- and Larkins tends to score closer to the rim than Charles. Prior Fever starting center Tammy Sutton-Brown (3.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg) in general has not had a good season while  Jessica Davenport (6.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg) did not play in the Fever wins versus Atlanta. Still, both may be needed to try to counter the athletic, skilled and physical Charles, who had a season deserving of the MVP (18.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg).  She is a nightly double-double and even  Mistie Mims, who is likely to back up Charles, has had her career-best WNBA season with 7.0 ppg and 4.5 rpg.  

Give a big edge to the Sun.

Power forward

 Is Asjha Jones fully healthy?

Thibault rested Jones (12.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg for regular season) until just before the playoffs, trying to get her Achilles tendon tear close to 100%.  Given that in round one versus the Liberty she averaged 15 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in just over 28 minutes per game for the two games, you would say that strategy worked out pretty well, but who knows for sure?  Mims will get minutes at this spot, most likely, and  Kelsey Griffin (3.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg) couldbe spotted, but 2012 was another relatively ineffective season for the former first-round pick.

Tamika Catchings moved to power forward this season and if anything, the 2011 WNBA MVP had stats that were slightly better than her career averages as she once again filled up the stat sheet (17.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.1 steals per game).  Jones will hurt the opposition but primarily in the paint while Catchings is dangerous all over the court at both ends (her steals) in spite of being a listed power forward. If daring, Dunn may play Larkins here, countering Jones and move Catchings to small forward. Watch for that.

Let’s give an edge to the Fever, and even more if Jones does not play up to speed.    

Small forward

Will anyone in this slot consisently step up for either team?

This is kind of the ‘odd man out’ position on both teams but particularly for the Sun -- and for that matter both teams often play three guards.  For the Fever, Shavonte Zellous started 31 regular season game averaging 7.5 ppg and 2.7 rpg but in the last two playoff games, she gave way to the even smaller Erin Phillips (6.1 ppg, 2.2 apg; a former Connecticut Sun player) who is more of a guard but in the final tally plays similar minutes on average to Zellous. 

Connecticut has searched without success for a quality small forward since Nykesha Sales departed after the 2007 season. On most nights Thibault starts Kalana Greene (4.2 ppg) but depending on the situation she will give way after a few minutes (usually) to Renee Montgomery (11.6 ppg but a high volume shooter who can take inappropriate shots) or Danielle McCray (4.8 ppg) who is more of a traditional small forward. 

Given that the Fever has the option of playing Catching at the small forward position and Larkins at the power forward, give a slight edge to Indiana.

Shooting guard

Can Katie Douglas keep lighting up the Sun?

Thibault was sorry to see Katie Douglas leave his squad after the 2007 season when the Indiana native asked to play in her hometown.  In the four contests versus Connecticut this season, Douglas has scored 23, 23, 17 and 19 points, and after struggling (13 and 3 points) in the first two games versus the Dream, she helped the Fever close out the Dream with a 24-point effort. Playing behind or beside Douglas one will find the above mentioned Erin Phillips.

For matter of team chemistry, the Sun starts Allison Hightower, a quality defender but limited scorer (6.8 ppg on 35.2% shooting from the field) at the off guard position.  She may play more at the small forward position when playing with the less physical Montgomery.  Another Sun option on the wing is Tan White (5.0 ppg) who is kind of an ‘instant offense’ player. 

Until Thibault can slow down his former player (Douglas), give an edge to the Fever.

Kara Lawson brings the ball up the court during game two of the Eastern Conference semifinal (Photo by Teri Priebe)

Point guard

Is this the critical matchup of the series?

Briann January (10.3 ppg, 3.9 apg for the regular season) was clearly one of the stars for the Fever in advancing past the Dream.  For the three game series, she averaged 16.7 ppg on 53.8% from the field (mostly on penetration) plus 5.0 assists per game. This season versus Connecticut she scored 20 points on eight of 14 from the field in the one Fever victory but shot four of 11 and four of 13 in the two June losses (did not play in the September meeting). Also handling point duties to a lesser extent will be Phillips, in less tense situations, and Douglas, if a crunch-time decision must be made without January.  

For Connecticut, Kara Lawson has become the unquestioned leader of the Sun while averaging 15.1 ppg and 4.0 apg.  She is a physical, highly focused competitor who doesn’t back down. She put the hammer down on Indiana with 18, 22 and 23 points in the three Sun wins (just 10 points in the one loss). Backing up Lawson is the WNBA 2012 Sixth Woman of the Year award winner Renee Montgomery.  The UConn product can shoot the ball well from behind the arc (36.4% during the regular season) and handles the ball adequately.  Unfortunately, her decision-making has not improved as much as one would have hoped since coming into the league in 2009, thus she lost the starting job to Lawson this season. 

Unless it turns out to be January in October, give a clear edge here to Lawson and the Sun.

Bench

How deep will each coach go in this series?

In playoff time, the tendency is to shorten the rotation and though Thibault used nine players in defeating New York, in this series, viewers should only expect Mims, Montgomery and White to get double-figure minutes. Post player Jessica Moore rounds out the Sun bench and is not likely to see any meaningful action. 

Indiana played only seven players in winning games two and three versus the Dream, but one of those unused players likely to get more opportunity against the Sun is Jessica Davenport, whose size may be needed to counter Tina Charles.  Another who played poorly in Game 1 of the Atlanta series and was unused after that is long-distance shooter Jeanette Pohlen (4.4 ppg). Look for Dunn to give her a chance to redeem herself in this series, although any of the Sun perimeter athletes will be a tough cover for this Stanford alum. Wing player Karima Christmas and rookie post Sasha Goodlett are not likely to see any meaningful action.  

Thanks to Montgomery, give Connecticut a slight edge here.

Coaching

Both coaches have been around the block. Thibault was WNBA Coach of the Year twice (2006 and 2008) and  Dunn got her team to the last game of the WNBA Championship series in 2009 and has had the Fever in the playoffs in each of her five seasons in Indianapolis. 

Call this about even.

Offense  

During the regular season, Connecticut shot the ball better from the field (43.1% to 41.8%), not surprising given the Sun power game. On the other hand, the Fever were clearly better from behind the arc (40% to 35.6%). The best news regarding Indiana offense may have come in Game 2 of the Atlanta series when players not named Catchings and Douglas kept the team in the lead for the first three quarters of the contest. 

Going with the power over the perimeter game, give a slight edge to the Sun. 

Defense

Neither team normally zones much, however, the Sun has struggled at times against it this year so Lin Dunn may again shift gears and zone more than normal.  Regardless, look for the Fever to try to bring help when Charles gets the ball in the paint.  In past years, Indiana was known as one of the best defensive teams in the league but that appears less so this year.  Defensive field goal percentages for both teams during the regular season were very similar (about middle of the pack).  The Fever does defend the three-ball better by about 1% and garners about two more steals per game.  Rebounding stats favor the Sun by about one board per game and Connecticut outrebounded Indiana in two of the four contests, losing the battle in one and drawing even in the fourth. 

Call this category about even.

Intangibles

Connecticut has the home court advantage and Indiana has traditionally struggled as a road playoff team, winning for just fifth time in 20 games as a road playoff team in Atlanta on Sunday.  Also, the Sun should be better rested, having wrapped up the New York series on Saturday. 

Give the Sun a slight edge here.

Outcome

These teams have led in the East since early in the season and Connecticut managed to finish first while at the same time nursing Asjha Jones back to functional playing shape.  Give Dunn credit for making imaginative changes to turn around the Dream series, and she may need to do so again to advance passed the Sun.  Whether the Fever can continue to maintain the momentum from the hard-fought series with Atlanta remains to be seen. The above numbers say ‘no’ with the Sun to win in a three-game, tightly played series.