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Sunday, August 13, 2006
Updated: August 17, 9:49 AM ET
Fever, scoring droughts could put end to Detroit

By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com

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It came down to the final day of the regular season, but Detroit edged Indiana for the East's No. 2 seed and homecourt advantage. Starting Thursday when their first-round series tips off, they're battling for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Fever and Shock split the regular-season series 2-2. A look at how they match up heading into the postseason:

(2) DETROIT VS. (3) INDIANA
Detroit (23-11), East No. 2
SHOCK STATS
(Regular season)
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
74.3 70.1 41.4 32.9 74.1 37.9
Indiana (21-13), East No. 3
FEVER STATS
(Regular season)
PPG OPP FG 3FG FT REB
71.6 68.1 40.7 31.0 76.6 32.1
WHAT'S WORKING? The Shock cover a lot of space with their length and athleticism, which might be their best strength and helps them make up for any mistakes.

Detroit just edges Connecticut as the league's best rebounding team, but nobody comes close to the Shock's plus-6 rebounding margin. Cheryl Ford (above, D. Lippitt/Einstein/Getty Images) has a lot to do with that, leading the league with 11.3 rebounds and the WNBA's only player to average a double-double (17 on the season).

The Shock are very unselfish and have incredible balance, with four starters in double-figures (both Ford and Deanna Nolan average just more than 13 points). But their bread and butter remains their defense (they rank second, behind Indiana, in scoring defense at 70 points per game), their rebounding (behind Ford, three other players average almost five boards per game each) and slashing. That's where Nolan comes in. She gets inside to the rim better than most and could be a very tough matchup for Indiana's Anna DeForge, though the Fever guard's countermoves also will test Nolan's athleticism.

Detroit also has a lot of pride, is well-coached and certainly knows how to win a championship. And, after signing Elaine Powell on July 26, the Shock have every key player back from their 2003 championship run and hopefully their chemistry is hitting high gear.

WHAT'S WORKING? The Fever defense is as good as it gets, allowing 68 points per game (the only team to hold opponents to fewer than 70) to rank first in the league. For the most part, they play man-to-man defense and can switch players very effectively, especially when Tamika Catchings (above, Chris Keane/Getty Images) is playing the 4. Catchings and Tully Bevilaqua ranked 1-2 in steals per game, combining for an average of 5.0 per game.

More than anything, and for lack of a more sophisticated word, their persistent efforts really can muck up a game, make it ugly and force the opponent to grind it out. They play a lot of hedge-and-recover. Their hands are constantly in motion, and you won't see many teams with more deflections, which don't show up in the box score but certainly disrupt the opposing offense.

The one thing that really sets Indiana apart, though, is that the Fever aren't just physical, they're smart physical, meaning they know when to jam a cut, know when to bump somebody and most importantly, know when to help each other out.

Another bonus to having such a solid defense is that Indiana is one of few teams that can withstand a poor offensive game. Even when they're not playing their best ball, the Fever's defense keeps them in a game right down to the wire (and because they have so many good shooters, they might even win it). That's why you don't see many blowouts. Of Indiana's nine losses this season, only four were by more than 10 points, and only one was a rout (21 points, Sacramento).
X-FACTORS: Aside from a six-game win streak in June and a four-game winning streak in July, the Shock have struggled -- especially lately -- for consistency. In the last month, they suffered losses to New York and Charlotte and enter the postseason having lost four of their last nine games. And keep in mind that two of those five wins were against Chicago, which set a league record this season for most losses. Also, aside from the road win over the Sky on Aug. 4, Detroit's only quality victory away from home came two weeks ago at Seattle.

So what's the source of the struggle? For whatever reason, the Shock sometimes find themselves in a scoring drought, and with their offense, it's hard to manufacture points when they're not boarding. When Detroit dominates the glass, they get the easy putbacks and mow down the opponent in transition.

Part of the problem might be Detroit's lack of a true point guard. Don't get me wrong -- I am a huge fan of Katie Smith's, and she has had a great season, leading the Shock to 23 wins. But both Smith and Nolan are really 2s (and even Powell could be a 2), and when things break down, it hurts that the Shock don't have that natural ballhandler who can get them what they need to find a basket or get them in the right play.

It doesn't help that the Shock average 16 turnovers a game, or that they shoot just 32 percent from 3-point range. Yes, Smith (55 treys this season) and Nolan (39) are prolific 3-point shooters, but Detroit as a whole does not have the outside shooting to counter when an opponent takes away the Shock's inside game and offensive rebounding. Plus, keep in mind that while the Shock have the best field-goal percentage defense (.388), the Fever have the second-best 3-point percentage defense (.303).
X-FACTORS: The Shock are the league's top rebounding team, snaring almost 38 boards per game. But if Indiana is going to win this series, the Fever are going to have to keep the Shock off the glass. In each of their regular-season meetings this season, the team that had the most rebounds won the game.

Trouble is, the Fever struggle to match up down low against Ford, who is quicker and more athletic than her Indiana counterparts Ebony Hoffman and Olympia Scott. When Ford gets her hands on a rebound, it either allows for an easy putback opportunity or for Detroit and Deanna Nolan to kick start their transition game. That's what the Shock like to do best, and in their two wins over Indiana, they combined to outscore the Fever 20-6 on fastbreak points. In Indiana's pair of victories, however, the Fever either outscored Detroit or equaled the Shock's fastbreak points.

So how can Indiana keep up with the league's best rebounders and ultimately make Detroit a half-court team? Tamika Whitmore might be the key. Though she's averaging a career-best 4.9 rebounds, she plays the 4 high out on top of the key, which means Ford has more room inside to operate. Whitmore and the Fever need to move in a little closer to the basket and make things tougher on Ford, who dropped an 18-rebound game on Indiana back on June 16.

Catchings is obviously the star here, putting in another MVP-caliber season. But Indiana also has better outside shooters than Detroit. Whitmore, a candidate for Most Improved Player, is having a career year, averaging almost 16 points, which is six more per game than last season.
WHO WINS? Though Detroit lost just three regular-season home games this season, the Shock were 9-8 on the road. I'm picking Indiana in three games. It should be a good series, with two of the most intense, hardest-working players -- Catchings and Detroit's Swin Cash -- going head-to-head.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.