Prepping for New York

By Tom Rietmann
           
If recent developments have dimmed the Indiana Fever's hopes of returning to the WNBA Finals, the team is concealing it nicely. Consider Katie Douglas' outlook. Douglas remains positive and suggested league observers could be uneasy picking against the Fever as the playoffs begin this week.
“They know that we have a lot of experience and we have a lot of firepower coming off the bench,” the Fever guard said Monday. “When you have those combinations going into the playoffs, it's a dangerous team. I think we should go in confident as the Eastern Conference defending champions.”
Recharging and recommitting for the postseason are the Indiana themes. That is, recharging the batteries in the wake of a three-game losing streak to end the regular season and recommitting to a stout defense ahead of Thursday's first game of the conference semifinals against New York's 3-point sharpshooters.
The re-energizing process started Monday. Coach Lin Dunn told Fever star Tamika Catchings to stay home and rest after she played nearly 33 minutes in Sunday night's loss to Minnesota. The rest of the Indiana team practiced lightly at Conseco Fieldhouse, emphasizing free throw shooting and New York's offensive and defensive sets.
A three-game trip sapped the Fever last week, and Dunn wants to make sure her players have fully recovered by Thursday when the best-of-three playoff series begins.
“I think they know the sense of urgency that goes with the playoffs,” said Dunn, hoarse from a cold. “Everything tightens. Every possession matters. There is no tomorrow. They know what it takes.”
Nobody knows more than Fever point guard Tully Bevilaqua. This will be the seventh playoff season for the 38-year-old veteran. Her Seattle team won the 2004 league title.
“In the playoffs, everyone's game level heightens,” Bevilaqua said, also insisting there will be no hangover from the three-game losing streak. “It's a clean slate now. Our minds have forgotten what happened in the regular season.”
What happened was a drop from the top seed in the East to No. 3 over the final three games. It means second-seeded New York will have home-court advantage over Indiana. The series opens at Madison Square Garden, with Game 2 on Sunday at Conseco Fieldhouse and Game 3, if necessary, back at New York on Sept. 1.
Indiana (21-13) and New York (22-12) split their four-game season series. The Fever won the first two games, the Liberty the next two. Each won once on the opponent's court.
New York started the season 7-9 but surged to the No. 2 seed by going 9-1 in August. And as the Fever prepares for the postseason series, one Liberty asset in particular stands out: 3-point shooting. New York ranks as the best in the WNBA, hitting .409 from the arc.  The Liberty hit .479 on 3-pointers in four games against Indiana.
The New York offense is triggered by Cappie Pondexter, who averaged 21.4 points (second in the WNBA) and 4.85 assists. Pondexter's penetrating style can collapse a defense and open space for New York's outside shooters. Leilani Mitchell hit .486 on 3-pointers (first in the league) while Nicole Powell was at .395. Pondexter shot .430 on treys (fifth).
The Fever lost by 21 points in their most recent game against the Liberty, on Aug. 17 in New York. Mitchell hit 4-of-5 3-pointers in a 19-point night. Pondexter scored just 13 but had six assists.
“(Pondexter) is very good finding the open teammate,” Bevilaqua said. “Our rotation has to be sharp so we can get the help needed on the kick-out pass.”
Offensively, Indiana will need to clean up its shooting and ball-handling.  The Fever was just .380 from the field over the final three regular-season games while committing 51 turnovers. Even Catchings, a study in consistency through most of the season, struggled in the final stages, hitting just 8-of-28 shots (.285) over the last two games.
However, Dunn worries less about her team's offense than its defense.
“If we play and defend at a high level, we have a chance to beat anybody,” the coach said. “That's our M.O. If we're sluggish or lethargic or slow to rotate, we're in trouble.”