First, an explanation of an obscure WNBA rule that may have a major impact on the Indiana-Chicago series.
When a team suffers a series of injuries – as Indiana did this year – it is allowed to sign a player to replace a particular injured player until the injured roster member is returned to the roster. When Katie Douglas, Indiana’s veteran wing, went down with a sore back after just two games, the Fever signed Jessica Breland, a 6-3 forward who improved steadily as the season went along. In her four September games, for example, Breland played 61 minutes, scored 30 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and made 14-of-25 shots.
In other words, Breland was an excellent third member of the Tamika Catchings/Erlana Larkins post rotation, not to mention the tallest by two inches.
But when Douglas was finally cleared to play and activated, the Fever had to release Breland (because Breland was a replacement for Douglas, and Douglas only) and now must rely on Jasmine Hassell to back up Catchings and Larkins. In her five games in September, Hassell has played 51 minutes, scored nine points, grabbed four rebounds and made three of 17 shots. Oh, and Hassell is shorter than Breland and has played half as many WNBA games.
Conceivably, Indiana could have gotten Breland eligible for the playoffs if the Fever had released her for a 10-day span and then resigned her – but Breland could have been claimed, and most likely would have been claimed, off the waiver wire by a number of other teams.
So not only must Indiana play the best team in the East without home court advantage, the Fever must also do so with almost no inside presence.
Briann January and Courtney Vandersloot both shoot just well enough that they have to be guarded. Vandersloot, though, is a better rebounder, and has more assists – though that may be because Vandersloot can pass to Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne. January has the reputation as the better defender, but the stronger Vandersloot has more steals. A couple years ago, there would have been no doubt January was the better player. In 2013, though, it’s a slight edge to Chicago.
As soon as Katie Douglas returned, she was back in the starting lineup, as coach Lin Dunn knew that for Indiana to have any chance against Chicago, Douglas was going to need to score. But before Sept. 13, the last game Douglas played in was on May 31, and so it’s not surprising she was 8-of-27 from the field (2-of-14 from three-point distance) in her two games back. Epiphanny Prince has not had a good season by her elevated standards, but she’s younger, better and is averaging 20 ppg in September. Major advantage Chicago.
Shavonte Zellous will put the “small” in “small forward,” as she’s generously listed at 5-10, and will be facing 6-5 Elena Delle Donne, who will undoubtedly be Rookie of the Year, and has emerged as a legitimate star in her first season. But Zellous is capable of big games, and she will have a quickness advantage over EDD, so this isn’t the mismatch it may appear to be on the surface. But Delle Donne is a better rebounder, better passer and better shotblocker, so unless Zellous is unconscious from beyond the arc, this is yet another advantage Chicago.
Tamika Catchings is one of the best players in the world, and she had another all-world season – while playing out of position at the four. She’s not a great shooter, but she does everything else, and though Chicago has a decent defensive matchup in Swin Cash, Catchings does too many things too well to be contained. It’s possible Dunn may have Catchings guard Delle Donne and see if Zellous can keep Cash from going crazy on the block, and that kind of versatility is just one reason this is a big edge to Indiana.
So Sylvia Fowles can’t pass out of a double-team (12 assists in 32 games and 66 turnovers) and is shaky with her left hand. She’s 6-5, shoots 58.8 percent from the field, gets 11.5 rebounds a game and blocks nearly 2.5 shots every time out. Erlana Larkins is a great hustle player, and even though she’s barely 6-1, she’s worked herself into a capable WNBA center – but Fowles is a matchup nightmare. Larkins is quicker and will use that athleticism to try to keep Fowles from getting the ball in the paint, but if Fowles does get a pass from Vandersloot on the wing or Cash at the high post, there’s really nothing Larkins can do but hope she misses. Another big advantage to Chicago.
Tamera Young has started 94 games in her WNBA career, and is at worst a serviceable reserve. She’s also 6-1 and has a reputation as a decent defender, so when she comes into the game on the wing, the Sky can muddle through. After that, the best Pokey Chatman can call on is Allie Quigley, who’s in the league because she shot so well in college – but in the WNBA, she connects just 31.6 percent of the time. Avery Warley has a moment every now and again, but the Sky bench is thin. Of course, Indiana’s frontcourt depth is non-existent, but Karima Christmas and Erin Phillips can step in on the perimeter and actually have something to offer. Oddly enough, despite all the injuries, call this even.
Lin Dunn might be the cagiest coach in the league, and she’ll do her best to keep the more-talented Sky off balance – and she’ll probably succeed. Pokey Chatman is certainly an average WNBA coach, if not better than that, but Dunn is a master. Advantage Indiana.
Indiana has no answer for Sylvia Fowles, especially with the lack of depth of front. If Lin Dunn had more fouls to give in the paint, she might try hacking Fowles every time she touched the ball and hoping that Fowles then would miss a lot of free throws. But if Larkins gets in foul trouble, Indiana has no chance, and even if Catchings plays great, Zellous goes off and Douglas relocates her jumper, there just doesn’t seem to be a way for the Fever to win. But they won’t go down easily: Chicago in three.