Three Keys to Game Three
The Minnesota Lynx are waiting.
Waiting for the winner of tonight’s Eastern Conference Finals elimination game between the Atlanta Dream and the Indiana Fever to determine which team they will face in the 2011 WNBA Finals presented by Boost Mobile, which tip off Oct. 2.
The stakes for tonight’s game are simple: Win and move on. Lose and go home.
But while the stakes are straightforward, this matchup is not. Far from it, actually, with more twists and turns than the average three-game series.
First, you had the fact that the lower-seeded Dream swept the season series against the top-seeded Fever. Did the Dream have the Fever’s number? Apparently not. The Fever won Game 1 by eight points to lead the series 1-0.
Then came the word that starting Dream center Erika de Souza had to leave the team to compete in an Olympic qualifying tournament for the Brazilian National Team. So now the Dream had to win back-to-back games without one of their best players. All signs pointing toward the Fever, right?
Thanks to a 30-point explosion by reserve Iziane Castro Marques, who stepped into the starting spot vacated by her fellow Brazilian de Souza, as well as Angel McCoughtry’s 27-point performance to bust out of her shooting slump, the Dream were cruising toward a win that would even up the series.
Then the series took a scary turn, as league MVP Tamika Catchings went down with a foot injury with just under five minutes to play in Game 2. The image of one of the game’s strongest players having to be carried off the court by her teammates is now seared into all of our memories.
So that brings us to tonight. One game to decide the Eastern Conference, with questions lining the court in Indiana. To help you sort things out, let’s take a closer look at the keys to the game.
1. The Status of Catchings
The official word out of Indianapolis is that Tamika Catchings will be a game-time decision for tonight’s game. That brings two questions.
1. Will she suit up and play?
2. If she does, how effective will she be?
There is no way the Fever can replace Tamika Catchings. It just can’t be done. Whether it’s Shavonte Zellous, Jeanette Pohlen or Shyra Ely on the court in her place, none can affect the game the way Catchings does on both ends of the floor, not to mention the intangibles that she brings to the court.
And even if Tamika is able to go into the phone booth and emerge as Superwoman tonight at Conseco Fieldhouse, she’ll be far from 100 percent.
While every player on the Fever roster will have to step up, the burden will fall on the shoulders of Katie Douglas, who is averaging 18 points and shooting 55 percent from 3-point range in this series. Her points, rebounds (5.0) and assists (4.5) are already up from the conference semifinals and from her regular season averages – how much more can she bring?
Maybe the help will come from the supporting cast. Tangela Smith scored a season-high 25 points in Game 1 to pace the Fever, but was held to just five points in 15 foul-plagued minutes in Game 2.
Keep in mind that this is already a team playing shorthanded after losing starting point guard Briann January early in the season to an ACL tear. Can the Fever knock off the defending East champs without two of their normal starting five, including the MVP?
2. Lineup Adjustments
Meadors could have gone with a more traditional substitution and plugged 6-foot-7 Alison Bales in place of de Souza, but decided to go small and emphasize the team’s speed advantage.
The Dream are at their best when they are in the open court, and played to that strength in Game 2, when they had 25 fast break points, compared to just 11 for the Fever.
Will Meadors repeat what worked so well in Game 2 or does she have another wrinkle up her sleeve that she can play in Game 3?
And what about her counterpart on the other bench? Depending on Catchings’ availability, Dunn will either have to fill her spot in the starting lineup if she can’t play or monitor her minutes and give her proper rest if she can play.
If she looks to match Atlanta’s speed and athleticism, Shavonte Zellous could see the bulk of the minutes that would normally go to Catchings. But how will that affect the Fever bench. Zellous has been the Fever’s top reserve in the series, averaging 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds off the bench? Beyond Zellous only two guard/forwards have seen action – Jeanette Pohlen and Shyra Ely – but they have combined to see just 13 minutes of game time.
3. The Charity Stripe
As a fan of the Sacramento Kings, the statistic 16-of-30 is forever etched in my sports memory. That was the team’s performance at the free throw line in Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, a game lost in overtime to the Los Angeles Lakers, who went 27-of-33 from the line.
Looking at this matchup, the Fever have been the better free throw-shooting team during the season and during this series. The Dream finished last among the 12 teams in the regular season with a free throw percentage of .694. Meanwhile the Fever finished fifth at .788 percent.
During this series, the Dream have been worse than they were in the regular season, going 21-of-39 (.538), while the Fever have improved, going 34-of-40 (.850).
While that appears to be total dominance by the Fever, a closer look at the numbers reveals a key for tonight’s game. In their Game 1 win, the Fever attempted 27 free throws compared to 17 for the Dream. Meanwhile, in Game 2, it was the Dream that attempted more free throws – 22 to 13 compared to Indiana.
ATL: 9-17 (52.9%)
IND: 23-27 (85.2%)
ATL: 12-22 (54.5%)
IND: 11-13 (84.6%)
So even though the Dream did not convert at a high percentage, the fact that they got to the line more often is telling. In many cases the edge in free throw attempts goes to the team that is the aggressor, and in Game 2, that was the Dream. They put their foot on the gas pedal and forced the Fever to commit fouls.
The team that has attempted the most free throws has won the first two games of this series. Will the pattern hold in Game 3?