Gearing Up For Washington

By Tom Rietmann | August 19, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- As Indiana prepares to meet the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Eastern Conference semifinals, a number of storylines are likely to come up. Here are three:

1. A Final Playoff Run for Lin Dunn

Indiana's head coach will retire from the bench at season's end. Her players, seeded second in the East, have talked about giving her a sweet parting gift -- perhaps even another one like the Fever's WNBA championship in 2012. Indiana was the East's second seed that year, too.

When Dunn was asked Tuesday if she has thought about the fact that her final WNBA postseason looms, she quickly responded: “All we're thinking about is Washington -- the first four minutes of the Washington game.”

Game 1 of that best-of-three series comes Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The second game is Saturday in Washington, with Game 3, if necessary, back in Indianapolis on Monday.

The third-seeded Mystics (16-18) and Indiana (16-18) split their four-game season series, with each club winning a pair of road outings. The teams also met twice in the preseason, so Game 1 on Thursday will be their seventh matchup of the year.

“They know us and we know them,” Dunn said. “I think it's going to be the team that's the most focused, the most rested, the most aggressive defensively, the one that takes care of the boards.”

Dunn's recent push with her Fever is having the team approach games in four-minute segments. Her emphasis: Focus on each four-minute portion, strive to win each one, and game victories will happen.

Using that plan, Indiana played some of its best basketball in a late-season, three-game winning streak that wrapped up the playoff berth and then a home-court edge in the semifinals.

A one-sided home loss to Washington on Aug. 8, in which the Fever trailed by as much as 26 points, immediately preceded that important three-game winning streak. Dunn took the blame, saying she overworked her squad going into that Washington game. She said this week that the coaching staff learned a lesson about making sure the team is “clear-headed and that our legs are fresh.”

Now the plan is to make a deep push into the playoffs. But don't bring up retirement to Dunn. She doesn't care to discuss it right now.

2. Tamika Catchings' Energy Reserve

Dunn has closely controlled the Fever star's minutes since the latter's return from a back injury at midseason. It paid off in a big way recently, with Catchings averaging 23 points during the aforementioned three-game winning streak. She has collected seven or more rebounds 10 times in her 16 games this year.

To say the 35-year-old Catchings must be an integral part of any playoff advancement in 2014 would be an understatement.

“When she's fresh and rested and we monitor her minutes, she can do the things she did when she was 25,” Dunn said.

Catchings, as well as point guard Briann January and center Erlana Larkins, sat out Indiana's final regular-season game at New York. The Fever, which lost by a 73-61 count, had nothing to gain in terms of playoff seeding. Dunn was viewing the bigger picture.

“More than anything,” said the coach, “we need those three, who play harder than anybody, to be fresh.”

Catchings, speaking after Tuesday's practice, said she feels strong and primed for the postseason. Lately, she has trimmed her pre-game warmup time and the move has left her with a boost in energy for opening tipoff and beyond.

“I just try to be more conscious of conserving energy early (and being able) to go for the whole 40 minutes if I have to,” Catchings said.

Washington, with veteran Coach Mike Thibault at the helm, will be ready. The Mystics have five players averaging nine points or more, led by guard Ivory Latta at 12.8. Emma Meesseman, one of the league's most improved players, is the leading rebounder at 6.4 per game.

3. The East's Wide-Open Playoffs

Atlanta enters as the East's top seed (19-15 overall), but the Dream certainly didn't dominate its conference opponents, recording an 11-11 mark. The Fever, which defeated Atlanta twice in five outings, was 12-10 against East foes. The other two Eastern playoff teams -- No. 3 Washington and No. 4 Chicago -- finished 11-11 and 14-8, respectively, within the conference.

The point is, a team that gets hot can become the Eastern Conference champion in 2014.

“Absolutely,” Dunn said. “… I think if there's a tossup, it's in the East.”

When No. 2-seeded Indiana won the WNBA title in 2012, it captured the East by knocking off No. 3 Atlanta and then No. 1 Connecticut. The Fever lost Game 1 in both series but stormed back.

This year's uncertainty in the East could lead to more of that kind of excitement. Catchings mentioned that the Fever experienced something of “an aha moment” with the players' late-season surge. Perhaps it's an indication the playoffs will be their time.

“Everybody has beaten everybody (in the regular season),” Catchings said. “And now, in the playoffs, your focus is different. The intensity is different. It's about getting into the playoffs and getting to that point where everything just clicks.”

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