In a summer of serious injuries, both the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever were dealt potentially crippling blows -- yet both have somehow survived to reach the Eastern Conference final that starts in Atlanta on Thursday (ESPN2, 7pm EDT).
Of course, five of the six Eastern teams have had to deal with serious injuries this season (only the recently eliminated Mystics avoided them). Still, the two battered and bruised survivors will now see which of the pair has enough left to lay claim to a ticket to the WNBA championship.
Indiana has been playing shorthanded for the entire season, with center Jessica Davenport out for the season with a left tibia stress fracture and Katie Douglas missing all but a few games with lower back issues, which means the Fever will play with nine in this series.
The low point of the season for the franchise may have come on June 25 in Atlanta when the Fever lost by 16, playing without six of its projected roster players, including stars Douglas and Tamika Catchings. Yet if you watched the game, you would have seen that the Fever competed for much of the night in spite of the Dream's wide final margin of victory. After that game, Indiana spent the rest of the season slogging its way into the playoff picture by finishing fourth. The Fever might have finished third, but coach Lin Dunn chose rest three starters at Connecticut in the season finale, and lost.
In essence, Dunn's move signaled a desire to play the Sky, a team against which the Fever had won the season series, though it also may have had something to do with next year's draft position. If such a strategy was in place, it succeeded as Indiana dispatched No. 1 seed Chicago with relative ease.
Even so, the Fever's presence in the Eastern Conference finals is a pretty amazing achievement, given that Indiana players missed 114.5 games over a 34-game schedule -- you can do the per-game math and then understand this club's never-quit attitude.
Ironically, it was not long after the Dream's late June win over the Fever that injuries to Sancho Lyttle (still out healing a broken foot) and Tiffany Hayes (knee which still plagues her though attempting to play through it) struck. After a 10-1 start, the Dream then fell all the way to 17-17 (getting second on tiebreak over the Washington) and a number of the prognosticators (not Full Court) had the club going down to the pesky Mystics in round one. Thanks to strong rebounding and its stars Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza, the club rallied to come back from a game one loss and advance. Lyttle will likely still be ou against Indiana, and additionally, power forward Le'Coe Willingham missed the last two games of the Washington series with a nagging knee injury . Hayes' knee is also still a problem, and Armintie Herrington is battling shoulder issues.
If past performance means anything, this series should be a bit less ugly than the Atlanta-D.C. affair as the previous four matchups produced plenty of points. Nonetheless, look for the games again to be hard-fought with Atlanta holding an edge in the paint due to its greater size while Indiana sports several trumps on the perimeter.
Past playoff history and 2013 regular season meetings
In postseason play, these teams have met twice. In 2011, the Dream defeated the Fever in the Eastern Conference final after losing game one in Indiana. In 2012, the Fever turned the tables, losing game one of the first round at home and then winning games two and three as Indiana began its march to its first WNBA championship.
In 2013, Atlanta, though, took the regular season series three games to one:
May 31 at Indiana - Dream 86-77 Fever
June 25 at Atlanta - Dream 76-60 Fever
Aug. 10 at Indiana - Fever 80-66 Dream
September 4 at Atlanta - Dream 89-80 Fever
Breaking down the matchups
Center: Erika de Souza continues to come up big for the Dream, pushing her club past the Mystics with a stellar 18-point/14-rebound game three performance. This season versus Indiana, the Brazilian hit double figure points three times, including two doubl- doubles. Her likely opponent will be the smaller but very physical Erlana Larkins, who had three double-doubles of her own versus Atlanta this season. De Souza (12.9 ppg/9.9 rpg in regular season) brings more size and shooting range to the table, which should make it more difficult for Larkins (7.9 ppg/7.8 rpg in regular season) to defend her by bodying up. Given her recent showing versus the Mystics, Aneika Henry at 6-4 also has an edge over Jasmine Hassell, a short center at 6-2. Who would have thought such a matchup could be a factor in a conference final last May!? Edge to Atlanta.
Power Forward: Sancho Lyttle is still rehabbing her broken foot and is not expected to see action in this series, and Le'Coe Willingham is considered probable for the series, but her non-ACL knee injury may keep her out for game one. Her replacement, Aneika Henry, had a double-double in game two versus Washington, which was was a total surprise given her poor game one performance (two points/four rebounds in 20 minutes). Henry's length seemed to bother Crystal Langhorne (five points total in games two and three). Guarding the multifaceted attack of Tamika Catchings, however, will be a much more difficult task for either Henry or Willingham, so don't be surprised to see the Dream try to go small with McCoughtry at this spot given the Fever's lack of size. Although Catchings is shooting below her career averages in 2013, she put 20+ points on the Dream each time she took the court. Solid edge to Indiana.
Small Forward: On paper, Atlanta has a big edge here, howeve, Angel McCoughtry will need to do better than the first round's 16 of 62 (25.8%) from the field. Even with that poor percentage, the Atlanta all-star used her ability to get to the foul line, pass, rebound and defend to help will her team past the Mystics. Given the loss of Katie Douglas to a reoccurrence of her lower back injury, reserve Karima Christmas has moved back into the starting lineup. During the regular season, she averaged 8.6 ppg on a modest 37.3% (30.0% from behind the arc) from the field. Look for Catchings to guard McCoughtry some even though not the small forward on paper. Angel has gone for 29, 16, 17 and 30 versus the Fever thus edge to Atlanta unless Dunn can copy whatever Washington did to slow down McCoughtry.
Indiana's Shavonte Zellous, the WNBA's Most Improved Player, brings the ball up the court against Atlanta's Armintie Herrington who was named to the WNBA's All Defensive Team. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
Shooting Guard: It's Indiana's Shavonte Zellous versus Atlanta's Tiffany Hayes/Armintie Herrington. Both Dream guards are banged up but expected to play. Hayes is nursing a bum knee, which has put her out unexpectedly several times in the last month while Herrington has a troublesome shoulder. Both are strong defenders who can turn defense into offense, but neither is as good as Zellous in the halfcourt offense. Zellous, the WNBA Most Improved Player, scored 15 or more each time she took the court versus Atlanta. Give Indiana a slight edge here.
Point Guard: After the Washington series, it can be argued that Atlanta often plays without a point guard as leadership and decision making have been so lacking from the position. Starter Jasmine Thomas acted more like a run-of-the-mill shooting guard in that series, showing little feel as to how to run an offense. In addition, coach Fred Williams seems to have lost faith in rookie Alex Bentley, who now comes off the bench for the Dream. Given Bentley has more lead guard skills than Thomas, she needs to step back up versus the Fever's Briann January, who is an athletic, experienced lead guard, not flashy at 9.8 ppg along with 3.7 apg during the regular season. Just call January solid and give an edge to Indiana.
Bench: For Atlanta, Courtney Clements did not play versus D.C. and Ruth Riley was little more than a foul magnet in game three as her WNBA career looks about over. Aneika Henry was a plus versus the Mystics but can't guard any of the Fever forwards as she did Langhorne. Alex Bentley should get ample playing time but appears to have hit the rookie wall. That leaves Armintie Herrington (or Tiffany Hayes if Herrington starts) as the Dream player most likely to give her team a bench lift.
For Indiana, Jeanette Pohlen is still struggling to come back to form from her year-ago torn ACL, which means rookie Layshia Clarendon and Erin Phillips should get the bulk of the time backing up the starting guards. Both tend to be up and down, although Phillips has had some higher highs. Rookie Jasmine Hassell is the lone post backup and has not shown herself to be very effective. Strangely, Katie Douglas's brief return forced the Fever to release replacement player Jessica Breland, who averaging was 5.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. She was by far a better post option than Hassell but the rules said she had to be released, thus the Fever are weaker here than during the latter stage of the regular season. Given the variables and uncertainties here, call the bench a draw.
Coaching: Not many may know this, but it was Lin Dunn who got me into scouting when she was head coach at the University of Miami back in the 1980s so she will always have a special place in my basketball world. Dunn has evolved into a master strategist as seen by her lineup revisions in last year's playoffs as well as surviving the stream of injuries to her club this year. Fred Williams held his own versus WNBA Coach of the Year Mike Thibault in the last round. So let's call this one about even.
Offense: Coming out of the first round, the Dream did not look like a very good half-court offensive team since so much of its scoring comes from transition and stick-backs -- with a lot of ugly one-on-one ball inbetween. Conversely, the Fever come in looking like the proverbial well-oiled machine after polishing off Chicago. The Sky, however, looked weak defensively so that result may not be a good indication of what will happen starting Thursday.
For what they're worth, regular season stats show Atlanta shot the ball better at 42.3% to 39.3% from the field while the Fever shot 33.7% from behind the arc to the Dream's 27.5%. For whatever reason, Indiana did shoot the ball better (42.7%) from the field versus Atlanta than its season average. With the short term countering the long term, call this another draw.
Defense: Atlanta has shown that it can win ugly when necessary and was the better rebounding team for the regular season. The Dream also were a bit better at creating off their defense. In this series, the Fever's biggest problem will likely be dealing with de Souza, so don't be surprised to see some inventive doubling on her and some zoning of the Dream's weak perimeter shooters. Give the Dream a slight edge here.
Intangibles: Atlanta again has the home court but also has several players who could be thrown off by nagging injuries. In general, the Dream have not played well on a consistent basis for months as one injury seems to strike after another. Indiana has dealt with adversity all season long and seems to have adjusted to it better. Finally, the Fever did win in Atlanta in last season's playoffs. In a tough call, give the Fever a slight edge here.
Outcome: Our numbers say this should be close. For Atlanta, McCoughtry and de Souza must again step up to combat a Fever team that seems to more naturally share the ball, thereby creating better looks. ESPN will be quietly pulling for Indiana and its better crowds. If this prediction is correct, the company will get its way with the Fever advancing in three as its season-long resilience triumphs.
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