Rebounding could determine Fever's fate

By Tom Rietmann

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana Fever Coach Lin Dunn minces no words when she discusses the importance of improved rebounding to her team as it enters the 2011 WNBA postseason.

“I'm convinced,” Dunn said, “that if we go into the playoffs and do the job we need to do on the boards, we'll win. If we don't, we won't. It's as simple as that.”

The acid test begins Thursday night for Indiana, which hosts the New York Liberty in the opening game of their best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series. Indiana is the conference's top seed. But the Fever finished the regular season on a shaky note, dropping its last two games and five of the last seven.

Those last two games, in particular, left a sour taste for Dunn and her players. The Liberty outrebounded Indiana 30-19 last Friday. Atlanta outmuscled the Fever in Sunday's season-ender, finishing with a 44-30 rebounding advantage. The Dream grabbed 19 offensive rebounds.

“We have positioned ourselves well,” Dunn said about the postseason, which she refers to as Season Two. “(But) for us to do what we want in Season Two, we have to do a better job on the boards. Period. Exclamation point.”

The Fever teams of recent years have not been strong rebounding clubs. Other than star forward Tamika Catchings, a leading candidate for league MVP, Indiana doesn't have what Dunn calls “a natural” rebounder.

But what the coaching staff finds disappointing recently is the Fever's inattention to rebounding details such as blocking out.

“It's everybody,” Dunn said. “You have to do the little things.”

Indiana (21-13) and New York (19-15) split their four-game season series. But the Liberty won the overall rebounding battle three times and averaged 11 offensive rebounds per game against Indiana.

“They're a physical team. They rebound like crazy,” Indiana guard Erin Phillips said about New York. “We have to do a better job of boxing out and just playing our game and having fun. Playoffs is a fun time. We want to go out there feeling relaxed and comfortable and playing hard.”

The Liberty eliminated the Fever from last year's playoffs. New York gets the bulk of its scoring from Cappie Pondexter (17.4), Plenette Pierson (12.9), Essence Carson (11.3), Kia Vaughn (10.1) and Nicole Powell (9.7). However, things have changed from 2010.

“This New York team is different in a lot of ways with their emphasis on defense,” Dunn said. “I'd say last year their emphasis was on offense and Cappie Pondexter. I think what they've done with Pierson and Vaughn is turn them into terrific defenders and rebounders. But on any given night, Cappie has the ability to take over the game.”

New York won six of its last nine games. The Liberty has the fourth-best defense in the WNBA, giving up 74.7 points a game. Indiana is No. 3 at 73.8.

But as Dunn has repeated numerous times this week to the media and her team, strong defense serves its purpose only if the result is a block-out and rebound of the opponent's missed shot.

“I'm sure they'll be tired of hearing about it,” Dunn said about her players. “But I'm not going to stop talking about it.”

Added Catchings about the New York series: “Defensively, it's going to be a big challenge for us. But finishing off a defensive possession with a rebound is even more critical for us.”

Forward Tangela Smith is the only current Fever player with a WNBA championship ring. She owns a pair from her 2007 and 2009 seasons with Phoenix. The 14th-year veteran knows what it takes.

“We need to buckle down and get physical,” she said. “These teams are coming at us. We're No. 1 (seed). Everybody wants to beat us. It's all about just getting the job done.”

So the Fever's push to return to the WNBA Finals is at hand. Indiana's team has high hopes but also knows many of its veteran players are 30-somethings. Catchings and guard Katie Douglas are 32 years old. Center Tammy Sutton-Brown is 33. All three were on the team in 2009, when Indiana lost to Phoenix in the final round.

“For Tamika and I and also Tammy, I feel like we just think about the sense of urgency,” Douglas said. “I know there's a different kind of focus and a different kind of fire in my eyes in my preparation this whole month.”

If  Indiana's fire manifests itself in a sound rebounding performance, it could make a big difference.