It was all there -- except for the celebration.
The Indiana Fever are closer than they have ever been to winning a WNBA championship. After coming out of Game Two Wednesday looking totally exhausted and overpowered by the physicality of the Lynx, they took the floor before their home crowd Friday looking like a team on another level as they put the highest scoring team in the league in a defensive stranglehold, beating the Minnesota Lynx by 17 points.
Shavonte Zellous, starting in place of the injured Katie Douglas, had the game of her life, scoring a career playoff-high 30 points, firing up the sell out crowd of 18,165 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse with each and every dagger she sank. But she confined her celebration to a broad smile, drumming the table with her hands as she spoke to the press after the game until her teammate Tamika Catchings stopped her.
"I guess I'm still just anxious," she apologized sheepishly. "I want to get back out there and play some more."
"I was fired up for this game,'' Zellous added. "Game 2 left a bad taste in our mouth. You know, we could have done a better job in a lot of different things, and I think today, we made a conscious effort to do things better.''
Catchings had 17 points and once again set the tone defensively, Erlana Larkins was back in top form with a 10-point and 15-rebound double-double and Erin Phillips added 13 points. Meanwhile, an aggressive Fever defense denied Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore from getting the ball, holding the high-scoring duo to single digits for the first time this season.
At one point Phillips looked up at the scoreboard and saw her team on top by 37 points. "I looked up at the score, and I couldn't believe it, thinking that I couldn't add properly,"
Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve is rarely at a loss for words, but she couldn't explain it. Asked what happened, her answer was straightforward:
"I don't have an answer."
And neither did her roster full of superstars, who found themselves down 37 points in the third quarter, the largest point difference in WNBA Finals history. A thumping so bad, Reeve pulled her entire starting lineup, not once but twice, benching them for most of the final quarter.
Fever coach Lin Dunn was equally surprised when asked if she ever imagined the score would be such a blowout:
"Never in my lifetime. Could you?"
Some factors were obvious. The Fever came out with, as Dunn described it, "an enormous amount of energy on the defensive end."
The Fever pressed the Lynx aggressively, up in their grills, disrupting the passing lanes, deflecting the ball even when they couldn't get the steal. And by the end of the first 10 minutes, the Fever had gotten six steals (the Lynx had none) and the Lynx had coughed up seven turnovers (to just one by Indiana).
|Fever All-Star Katie Douglas was on the bench but not in uniform for Friday's Game Three victory over the Minnesota Lynx, sporting a pump on her right foot and a protective boot on her left. Douglas, who has missed all playoff games since spraining her ankle five minutes into the Fever's victory over the Connecticut Sun in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Finals on Oct. 11, remains day-to-day, her status uncertain for Sunday's Game Four of the WNBA Finals. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)|
In the second quarter, Minnesota did a better job of taking care of the ball, but the Indiana defense continued to deny the ball to the Lynx' key shooters, and the defense converted to offense for the Fever. Catchings had carried the Indiana offense with 11 points in the first quarter, but Zellous took over in the second, and once she got started, she was all but unstoppable, knocking down four-of-five from the field, including both of her attempts from downtown, for 13 points in the second period alone. The Fever were content to keep feeding the hot hand, and by the break they had put together an impressive 30-8 run.
An 18-point edge at the half was unexpected for a team that had looked so totally spent just two days earlier. But against a team with the resources of the Lynx it was far from an insurmountable lead. The Minnesota offense had shown signs of life in the final minutes of the second quarter, as Maya Moore drove for a layup and followed that up less than a minute later with a long three-pointer. The Lynx have no shortage of three-point sharpshooters; knock down a couple of quick treys to open the third, and you're back in the ball game.
For a minute or two, it looked like things might be headed in that general direction. Out of the break, Lindsay Whalen picked Zellous' pocket, and though Seimone Augustus couldn't make anything of the opportunity, Taj McWilliams-Franklin blocked a Catchings layup attempt. After the Lynx grabbed the rebound, it was Mama Taj again who took a feed from Augustus deep in the post and dropped in the bunny to get Minnesota rolling again.
Except ... that was the last Minnesota would be heard from for the next five minutes, while Indiana took off on a 16-0 run that was the aftershock to their first-half earthquake. Roughly three minutes into the carnage, Reeve yanked her entire starting five, but the bench wasn't able to do any better, as Erin Thorn threw the ball away, Candice Wiggins turned it over with an offensive foul, and Devereaux Peters and Amber Harris heaved up bricks.
Three minutes later, the Lynx starting five returned to the floor and Brunson finally stopped the hemmorrhaging with a pair from the charity stripe. Seconds later, Brunson picked off a bad pass by Fever sub Jessica Davenport, but Moore turned it right back over and Davenport redeemed herself by feeding Zellous for her third trey of the evening.
With a minute to go in the third, Reeve ran up the white flag, sending Augustus, Whalen and McWilliams-Franklin to the bench for the remainder of the evening. Brunson and Moore stayed on the floor, with Brunson making the most of her final minutes by tapping in two put-backs, but when the final stanza began with Moore yielding possession with an offensive foul and Brunson coughing the ball up on a bad pass, they joined the rest of the starting five on the bench.
To their immense credit, the Lynx relievers turned a final quarter's worth of garbage minutes into a 21-6 Minnesota run, making the final score a bit more respectable.
Still, at the end of the night, the Fever had thoroughly dominated the defending champs by about any measure you might want to look at:
- They had held the Lynx' three Olympians to a total of 21 points among them, with none of the three putting up more than eight points.
- Brunson was the only Minnesota player to manage double figures, finishing with 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
- Four Fever players notched double-digit scores, led by Zellous' career playoff-high 30 points.
- Catchings added 17 points, plus six rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.
- Phillips chipped in 13 points, plus four boards, two assists and a steal.
- Briann January was the only Fever starter not to reach double figures, finishing with two points, two boards, three assists, and two steals (but three turnovers). But tasked to defend the Lynx' Seimone Augustus for the first time this series, she did a lockdown job of it, holding Minnesota's top scorer, who has been averaging better than 19 points a game in the postseason, to just six points on the night.
- The Erlana Larkins who had come out of nowhere to change the trajectory of the playoffs but seemed to have lost her mojo in Game Two when she was owned by Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin returned in earnest, bouncing back with a double-double of 10 points and 15 boards, the latter matching her Game One rebounding performance as the second highest in WNBA Finals history.
- Indiana won the battle of the boards, 39-30, including a 13-9 advantage on the offensive glass.
- Almost equally importantly, since the Lynx are a team that feeds its offense with crisp, precise ball movement, for three quarters, which proved to be enough, the Fever prevent defense effectively disrupted the passing lanes, never allowing Minnesota to establish an offense rhythm. The Lynx averaged nearly 21 assists per game in the regular season, and over the course of the playoffs, more than half of their field-goals have come off a dish. In Game Three, the Indiana defense held the Lynx to just six assists on the night, while forcing three times that many turnovers.
As the clock wound down on this tour de force, the entire crowd was on its feet. But the celebration was confined to the fans, whooping it up in the stands. On the floor, there was nothing. No chest bumps. No high fives. No fingers raised in the No. 1 sign. Just a swift and businesslike handshake line before the team headed to their locker room.
Catchings has been here before, and she knows the Fever's job is not done yet. In 2009, she led her team to a 2-1 advantage over the Phoenix Mercury, only to watch the championship slip from Indiana's grasp in the final two games of the series. (Indeed, the Lynx may take some encouragement from the fact that since the WNBA Finals went to its current best-of-five format in 2005, the winner of Game Three, when the series had been tied at 1-1, has gone on to win the championship only once. In fact, the most recent team to find itself in this position, having won Game Three after the series had been tied a one apiece, was Indiana in 2009, and they went on to have their heart broken by Phoenix.)
Dunn, Catchings, the entire Fever team know they have a defending champion between them and their goal, a team that is not going to go down without a battle and isn't likely to have two poor games in a row. They're expecting the fight of their lives on Sunday.
As Dunn put it, "What we have to understand is that nothing matters except that we have a chance on Sunday. You know, we haven't won a championship. We've put ourselves in a position to win a championship.
"Now, we have to do the work that it takes to get that championship. And it's not going to be easy. ... We do not want to go back to Minnesota. Do not!"
Catchings knows that all too well. And so she took charge in the huddle, telling her teammates: "'Don't let your highs get you too high and your lows get you too low.' I felt like we celebrated too much after Game Three in 2009, and we came out in Game Four and had an opportunity and we let it slip away. Had to go back to Phoenix," she explained.
"So you know, we sat in the huddle, I told everybody, 'Don't get excited about this. Do not get excited. We'll come back in here tomorrow. We'll look at some video and get better tomorrow and we'll come back out on Sunday.
"'I don't want anybody celebrating, none of that. We don't celebrate early.'"