Indiana Transitions To Playoff Mode

By Tom Rietmann

INDIANAPOLIS -- Conference playoff series in the WNBA are quick, compact and perilous. Having the higher seed and home-court advantage is helpful but not a guarantee. In a best-of-three matchup, an opponent's hot shooting night or a few lucky breaks can lead to a quick exit for the favored team.

The Indiana Fever is acutely aware of the dangers.

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Friday night, the second-seeded Fever will begin a best-of-three set against the No. 3 Atlanta Dream in the conference semifinals. In 2011, the third-seeded Dream eliminated the top-seeded Fever, winning two of three in the conference finals.

A best-of-seven series, like in the NBA postseason, provides the better team with opportunities to overcome an atypical bad game, get back on track and advance. A best-of-three series in the WNBA? Better show up ready to compete.

“You can't miss opportunities,” Fever guard Briann January said. “You can't afford to bring your 'B' game.”

Fever Coach Lin Dunn knows what she will emphasize heading into Friday's opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“You don't just focus on every quarter. You focus on every possession and just know that every one of them is gold,” Dunn said Tuesday after a spirited practice at the Fieldhouse.

Defense typically plays a huge role in the playoffs. Nothing will be different as Indiana takes on Atlanta.

Atlanta is led by the top scorer in the WNBA, Angel McCoughtry, who averaged 21.4 points. Three other starters -- Sancho Lyttle (14.0), Lindsey Harding (12.3) and Erika De Souza (11.6) -- averaged double-digit scoring.

Fever forward Tamika Catchings expects her team to be ready defensively.

“When we play together and when we communicate and everybody is clicking on defense, our team looks amazing,” said the 2011 league MVP. “It's just the times that we don't, the times when we're flat. We can't afford that.”

The Fever, which tied a franchise record with 22 regular-season victories, won 12 of 17 games after the  league's Olympics break.

The Fever defense rose to the occasion throughout the year and looked especially strong the second half of the season. All told, Indiana held 13 of 34 opponents to fewer than 70 points. Nine of those games came after the break.

“I won't say this is the greatest defensive team that we've had, but it certainly is one of our top three,” Dunn said. “We're defending, but we're also scoring more points. That's the thing I see different from past teams. In the past, we probably depended on our defense a little more than we do this year.”

The Fever offense averaged 78.3 points per game in 2012. That ties the franchise high, set in 2010.

Indiana hit a franchise-record 270 3-pointers this season. The Fever's 3-point mark was .400, tied with Minnesota for best in the league.

Free throw accuracy, too, helped boost Indiana's scores. The club hit .814 from the line. The marksmanship improved with each game, and Indiana was 149-of-174 (.856) from the stripe in September.

Yet, if one statistic jumps off the page for the Fever, it probably is rebounding. Indiana isn't a dominant rebounding club, but Dunn vowed at the break that her team would find a way to improve, even if only slightly. The Fever got it done.

Before the break, Indiana won the boards against only four opponents and tied once in 17 games. In 17 games after the break, Indiana led in rebounding eight times and tied once. The Fever's per-game average in rebounding jumped from 31.6 before the break to 33.2 after it.

At practices during the WNBA's month off, Dunn and her staff relentlessly pounded home the importance of block-outs and rebounding details.

“I think everybody kind of took that to heart,” January said. “We were tired of people getting easy buckets (after offensive rebounds). We play good defense, but you have to finish it with the rebound.”

January and Shavonte Zellous missed the end of regular-season play with concussion symptoms, but Dunn is optimistic that both will be ready for Friday's game. Katie Douglas sat out the last two games with illness, but she returned for practice on Tuesday.

Friday, Atlanta will play its sixth game against Indiana this year. The Fever won the regular-season series, 3-2.

“That gives us some confidence going into these playoffs,” Dunn said.

Confidence and preparedness. Both will be important in a best-of-three series scheduled over a six-day span.

“It's one of those things,” Catchings said, “where you know what's at stake, so you have to be ready.”