Coaches, players size up the Eastern Conference Final

September 26, 2013 - 4:05am
Tamika Catchings and the defending WNBA Champion Indiana Fever will face Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

Tamika Catchings and the defending WNBA Champion Indiana Fever will face Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

Editor's Note:  Lin Dunn, head coach of the reigning WNBA champion Indiana Fever, Fever forward and 2011 WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings, and the Atlanta Dream's Angel McCoughtry, the league's leading scorer this season, took time out from practice Wednesday for a media teleconference to share their thoughts on their upcoming Eastern Conference Finals series, which tips off today in Atlanta's Phillips Arena at 7 p.m. EDT, airing on ESPN2. ESPN analysts Carolyn Peck and LaChina Robinson also weighed in. Here are some highlights from what they had to say. Click here for Full Court's detailed preview of the Fever-Dream Eastern Conference Final.

Q: LaChina, I'll ask you this because you see the Dream more than anybody, and I'm sort of trying to figure out why has this team been so different on the road and at home. Obviously, Atlanta had the big playoff win at Washington, but it seems this whole season they've been very different home and road.  What are your thoughts on that, first? Then second, we saw Indiana just take Chicago apart in terms of dribble-penetration and basically took control of those games by doing that. What do you think the Dream can do to stop Indiana from setting that tone, especially with dribble penetration?

LaChina Robinson: I'll start with home and road for Atlanta. I think that some of it was just the timing of injuries that occurred for them. They went on a huge road trip during the entire month of July where I think they only played one game at home. Well, to start that road trip, they lost Sancho [Lyttle] in Minnesota.  And within that, I think before they started that road trip, they lost Tiffany Hayes. So losing those two players and going on a month ... pretty much a month on the road, some of that has to do with timing, I think. Then having two point guards there in their first season with the team. So you lose your veteran experience with Sancho Lyttle, and at the same time, what she brings to the team and trying to incorporate some new pieces is difficult.

If you ask any coach in this league, I'm sure they say point guard and power forward, those are the two most important positions. I didn't think they really had the consistency of getting Jasmine Thomas acclimated when they started that long road trip and then they lost Sancho for good. That is one piece.

The other part of it that, they've been up and down, I think, really all year without much explanation. You can call it growing pains, you can say it's injury. But I think Atlanta is what I've been calling this year just a Jekyl-and-Hyde team. When they're on, they're on; when they're not, they're not. The road to the WNBA (Finals) is a challenge anyway, but I think when you're trying to incorporate all those new pieces, it can really be difficult.

As far as the dribble-penetration of Indiana, I mean, wow. They were very impressive. I think right now they're playing with a lot of chemistry and confidence. And the experience factor, obviously, is big. They have a lot of faith in what coach Dunn is asking them to do on both ends of the floor, and that's a very difficult team to beat. If you look at the series the last few years between Atlanta and Indiana, the equalizer for Indiana has been three-point shooting. They shot the ball very well against Atlanta, and when they do, they have success.

I think one key for Atlanta, I believe we'll see Angel probably play more power forward. I think [coach] Fred [Williams] will probably play a smaller lineup because that will help some with dribble-penetration. You can switch more. Aneika Henry played at the power forward in the Washington series a lot because her size was better for that matchup, so a lot of it has to do with how you match up against Indiana. I think Chicago, because they are big, had trouble containing those small quick guards. Again, Indiana they were just spectacular and very confident in taking the ball and getting into the paint. That will be a big challenge for the Atlanta Dream.

Q:  Carolyn, we saw last year the way that Erlana Larkins just put such an imprint of her toughness on this Indiana team that really came through in the playoffs. I wonder how big a factor do you think she'll be in this particular series with as well as (Atlanta's) Érika de Souza been playing? How big a factor is Larkins both defensively and with whatever offense she can bring?

Carolyn Peck:  I think she's vital. She was key in the Chicago series defending Sylvia Fowles who was much taller than Erlana. And the thing that Erlana has added to her game this year ... last year she pretty much was to be that anchor defensively in the paint for the Fever, but this year she's a go-to post player. When they need paint points now, Indiana has the confidence that they can go inside to her, and she even has what's called a "no-pass mode." When the ball comes into her in the paint, the coaching staff has an expectation now for Larkins to be a scorer. When she establishes herself, because she's so strong, she's usually going to be able to score or get post players into foul trouble, and I would suspect that's going to be part of the game plan for Indiana going against de Souza because de Souza has been putting up double-doubles. The best way is to put her on the bench (in foul trouble).

Q:  If you could mention a player or two besides Larkins that you see on each of the teams that you consider X-factors, or are going to be surprises?

CAROLYN PECK:  Well, we'd start first with Indiana, and I would see Karima Christmas. She is a player whowas pretty much the tenth player coming off the bench last year until the Finals. Now she has moved into the starting role in the absence of Katie Douglas.  She can hit the three, she can switch defensively with Tamika Catchings and still have that defensive impact on the forward, and she's a rebounding guard.

For Atlanta, I think the X-factor is going to be Aneika Henry.  With the questionable injury, with Le'coe Willingham out with that knee, Aneika Henry has got to be a post who catches and finishes inside for the Atlanta Dream, especially if they have Tiffany Hayes to play alongside Angel McCoughtry and, it's going to be Aneika Henry that's got to have that huge presence inside.

LaCHINA ROBINSON:  For me, I guess I'll start with Indiana. I think one of the more important players is going to be Jasmine Hassell.  They don't have a lot of depth in the post, and Larkins is already undersized.  I think that now as Carolyn mentioned, Aneika Henry has been playing much better. She's got a 6-4 body with a 6-8 wing span. (Indiana is) going to need someone to come in and be physical.  I think that Jasmine Hassell, looking at the bench options, can provide that.
Obviously, they lost Jessica Davenport this season, and so on and so on.  But I think they're going to need some cushion in the post if Larkins does get in foul trouble for Indiana.

I would say probably (for Atlanta) Alex Bentley. I think against a defense that is as tough as Indiana, you're going to have to be able to move the basketball well, with confidence.  I think Jasmine Thomas does a great job of that. They have Hayes, Herrington and Angel McCoughtry.

But when you go to the bench, Indiana had Erin Phillips, who was huge last year in the finals, and at the guard position (for Atlanta) it's going to have to be Alex Bentley. Now, depending on Le'coe and how her knee is going, you don't have a lot of options. So I think how Alex played, especially against her home town being Indianapolis, that would be something I'll be keeping my eyes on.

Q:  LaChina, if you've watched the Dream quite a bit, first, in general, from a Dream perspective, what sort of advantages do you think they need to exploit to win this series? And they've obviously been here before in the Eastern Conference finals. How is this team different in terms of team culture and how the players interact with each other?

LaCHINA ROBINSON:  Let's start with advantages for Atlanta.  Obviously, experience, first and foremost. Erika and Angel and Armintie have been to two WNBA Finals. This is not a team that hasn't been there. Now Indiana is coming off of a championship.  But I think having that as an asset is definitely a good thing.  I think Erika de Souza has to be an advantage. Larkins has played her well, but with her size, she's got to be a go-to option in the post and make easy baskets and establish physical play.

In thinking about advantages, one of the things Atlanta has to use is its team speed and try to get fast-break points. They've got to get out and run. If there was one stat that I would say you need to keep your eyes on it would be assists, assists for both teams. Indiana, because if they're driving and kicking for three, they're going to get assists, but Atlanta because they like to get out in the open court and get assists, and they need that transition offense.

I think when you look at the backcourts for both teams, (Atlanta has) the faster backcourt, and they need to use that to their advantage. Angel McCoughtry, obviously, is always a lot of the advantage this time of the year. I believe she's plus-seven points per game in conference finals in her career versus that ofsemifinals.

As far as Fred and the culture, not a lot has changed.  You have to keep in mind Fred Williams was here.  He wants to play fast; he believes in in-your-face defense.  Maybe the biggest culture change is that he is quiet. He's not as demonstrative as (Marynell) Meadors maybe was. I think she was a little more fiery, a little more emotional from that end. So you'll see the players create more of that themselves. I think the team has taken on more of an emotional identity. You've seen Erika [de Souza ]really get into it and get excited and get going, and everyone is kind of creating that energy as a team.  But other than that, there really aren't a lot of differences in what Fred wants to do.  

Q:  [Coach Dunn,] you and the Dream have faced each other three years straight in the playoffs now and twice in the conference frinals. What do you think most distinguishes this meeting from the past two years in terms of how these two teams match up?

LIN DUNN:  Well, one thing that immediately comes into my mind is they're without Sancho Lyttle and we're without Katie Douglas. I believe the last times we've played both of those two key players have been available, so it makes it a little different matchup. We're without a great scorer, and they're without a great scorer and a great player. Other people have to step up for them. Other people have to step up for us. Other than that, we're pretty much the same.  We're a year older, year wiser. They're a year older and year wiser.

Q: I believe you were 1-3 against the Dream this season, but obviously you had players missing. So what, if anything, do you think we can take from the outcomes of those games to help understand this matchup?

LIN DUNN: Well, I don't think you can take a lot from them. Neither one of us, when we played those four times, was at full strength. It was always somebody missing from somebody's team.  I think both are now settled into the fact that Sancho's not going to play and Katie Douglas is not going to play.  We're going with what we've got. It's a second season.  It's a new season. What you did in the regular season is fine and dandy, but it doesn't really matter. It's a whole new ballgame.

Q:  You were able to contain the best young team in the conference in the Chicago Sky last series.  What different challenges do you think Erika de Souza presents in this series for Atlanta?

LIN DUNN:  I think the key word you said was "young" team. Chicago was a young, different team, very talented .. .probably one of the most talented teams in our league, but inexperienced and young.

The Atlanta Dream are very experienced. They're not young. De Souza is an Olympian, and she presents great challenges for us because she's so good. Then you have Angel (McCoughtry), who is a legitimate MVP candidate and who is an Olympian. They're very different teams, Chicago and Atlanta.

Q: Could you address how the Dream is a little different now with Jasmine Thomas as opposed to Lindsay Harding?  Also, you've had a lot of opportunity to strategize against Angel McCoughtry. I know you're not going to tell us your game plan, but what do you do to try to neutralize her as much as possible?

LIN DUNN:  First of all, I think losing Harding is a tough loss for Atlanta. She's an elite point guard, but I think they did a great job of replacing her with Jasmine Thomas. I think Jazz this year has played as well as I've ever seen her play. She's bigger, and she's taller than Harding, and she's just as quick or maybe quicker.  So that's kind of a wash.

Then when it comes to Angel, we've talked about six or seven different concepts of how to slow her down. We can't stop her -- she's too good. Can we limit her touches? Can we force her one way or the other? Can we rotate different players on her to slow her down?  We're going to talk about all those different type things.  But at the end of the day, she's going to score and be a factor. We can't let her go crazy and score 30 points.

Q: Lin, you talked a lot after game two of the first round about Larkins and what she brought to the team. Can you talk about her and de Souza, because I think in some ways both these players at times get overlooked? But both have had good seasons and could be a big factor in this series.

LIN DUNN:  I think you're exactly right. De Souza is one of the premier centers in the world. She's a tremendous basketball player. She's a veteran. She's got playoff experience. She's been in the Finals. She's an Olympian. She's big, strong, and physical. In a lot of ways, she's like Fowles but she's a little more mature in her body and just in the experiences she's had.

She presents a real challenge for us. We'll think about her just like we did Fowles. She can go off and singlehandedly beat you.  

I think Larkins is a unique player. She's not like the Fowles or the de Souza. She's blue-collar, undersized, would rather pass, rebound and defend than score, whereas those other two love to score. They're trying to get the ball. They want the ball. Larkins is trying to find her teammate. That's a little different style for Larkins, but she's a warrior. She's big, she's strong, she's physical. She's not tall, but she plays tall, and she's going to have to battle de Souza. If de Souza is in there, Larkins will be in there. If Larkins gets a break, it's only because de Souza is taking one. So if they want Larkins to play 40 minutes, then play de Souza 40 minutes.

Q: After the two games against Chicago, one of the key factors you cited was playoff experience. That's not going to be as much an issue for Atlanta who has certainly not been to the playoffs as often as Indiana, but has been there plenty. Can you name the three key elements that will prove decisive in this series?

LIN DUNN:  Well, I think whoever controls the boards has a real good chance of winning.  I think the other thing is defense.  Everything with us starts with defense.  If we defend at a high level or we rebound, we've got a chance to win.  If we don't do those two things, we're going to get our britches blown out of the building.

The other thing we have to do is take care of the basketball. That's going to be a real key for us. Atlanta feeds off of team turnovers. You have 10 turnovers, and they've got 20 points off of them. So we must take care of the basketball. We must defend, and we must rebound.

Q: Going to into this season, [the Fever] were favorites to not only go to the WNBA Finals but to win the championship. Along the way there were setbacks. Can you talk about how you've been able to keep your team motivated and make it to the conference finals?

LIN DUNN:  Well, first of all, we dealt with adversity last year. We got hurt in the playoffs and lost Katie Douglas; in the next round we lost Jeanette Pohlen. So we've learned to deal with adversity and injury. So when it happened to us this year, we just clawed through it. We have great leadership in Tamika Catchings.

Q: Tamika, could you talk about the fact that this will be the third year in a row that you're going against the Dream. And also specifically Angel (McCoughtry). You've played with her on the U.S. National Team and played against her. Just how difficult she can make it for defenses?

TAMIKA CATCHINGS:  First of all, we're excited about the opportunity, getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals and being matched up against the Atlanta Dream. Of course when you look at Angel and what she brings to the team and the league overall, she definitely had one of her best seasons this year.  But when you look at guarding somebody like her, I mean, she can do everything, whether its on the offensive end, defensive end, just being able to dictate a game. I know for us it's always been a hard matchup, but we'll go out [Thursday] night like both teams will and put together a plan and hope to execute it.

Q: Tamika, Coach Dunn mentioned turnovers would be a key factor in this series. I just wondered if you had any thoughts about Briann January at point guard this year and how important she is in terms of managing that turnover margin for you guys?

TAMIKA CATCHINGS: I think Briann has done a great job from the beginning of the season to where we are now. She struggled early on. I felt like, for her, the game that turned everything around was the last time we played Chicago in the regular season. I think she had 30 points and she played a great overall game.

Her defensive intensity is always there, but I think from her offensive standpoint, what we've needed from her as a team is just to be able to be confident in her scoring ability, being able to get the ball up the floor, being able to just help everybody else out on the court offensively and defensively. During the first series [against] Chicago I felt like she did a good job just dictating the offense and dictating our team. I felt like for any team, everything starts with your point guard and just being able to take control of the game. That's something we've needed her to do and step up -- that's what she did last year, and we're looking forward to her doing it now. She's grown into her role and done a really good job.

Q: Angel, can you give us basically your scout on what you think you as a team need to do in order to win the series. What do you see that as a team you have got to do to win the series, and what do you see as your personal assignment?  

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY:  As far as Atlanta, we've just got to try to contain (Indiana's) leader in Tamika Catchings. They've been shooting the ball really well from the three; also they're running the floor really well.  We've got to play defense transition-wise and play our best basketball.  That's kind of our game plan to try to get these games.

Q: Angel, because of your scoring ability you draw the double-team when you step on the floor. That creates opportunities for other players to score on your team as well. Are there any key teammates on the Dream roster that you have high expectations for to step it up in this series offensively?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY:  I would say Aneika Henry. She's been playing well in these series, and she's been rebounding the ball well, scoring well. They're probably going to leave her to try to double, so I look for her to be confident, shoot the jumpshot or take it to the basket.  That's the main thing.  But I think Aneika Henry is the one that's stepped up and shown us she's ready to play in these games.

Q:  It was an extremely difficult MVP vote this year. All three of you [Minnesota's Maya Moore also participated in the call] could have been MVP of this league. And the player who ended up winning it (Candace Parker) isn't playing anymore. She's out of the postseason. Diana Taurasi was another strong candidate. I know this is a team game, but individually how good is it for the league that basically we have so many different choices of players who could have been tabbed the Most Valuable Player in this league?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY: You've got to commend everybody. Everybody is playing well ... and congratulations to Candace for winning it. Everybody works hard, you know what I mean?  I think right now everybody's focused on playoffs and not really worried about that. Everybody just wants to win a championship at this point.

Q:  Angel, you guys handled Indiana and won three out of four in the regular season. What do you take from that into this postseason?

ANGEL McCOUGHTRY:  You've just got to continue playing how you've been playing, but it's a different ballgame now. It's honestly like a new season. It really doesn't matter about that, because they're a different team and we're going to be a different team. But we can take the positives from it and try to do what we've been doing, but they're playing a lot, lot different now.  We've just got to come out with focus and intensity defensively to contain them. That's just what we've got to do.

I mean, really, the seed doesn't even matter anymore. It just goes to show you ... Chicago's already out and they had that awesome season. I don't think youcan  really look at the (regular) season. You've just got to refocus and try to get this game going.  Really defensively is what's going to make the difference.