Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Updated: August 30, 12:41 PM ET
Rebounding, defense and 3-pointers to determine series
By Graham Hays
Having exorcised one demon, the Indiana Fever must go through another to get to the franchise's first WNBA Finals.
Connecticut and Detroit have dominated the Eastern Conference for almost as long as the Fever have been in the league. The last time an Eastern Conference team other than the Sun or Shock represented the conference in the championship series was 2002, when the Sparks swept the Liberty. That was the same year the Fever, with a 16-16 record in their third season in the league, made the playoffs for the first time, losing in three games against the Liberty.
What the Fever need to do to win
The Fever didn't break out a lot of new tricks to get past the Sun in the opening round. At the most basic level, their success boiled down to good shooting and Tamika Catchings' return, both of which will remain important factors in the Eastern Conference finals.
Sometimes it's not a complicated game.
The Fever were a good long-range shooting team during the regular season, but they were great in the first round. After averaging 5½ 3-pointers per game and shooting 34.4 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season, they averaged eight per game at a 43 percent clip in three games against the Sun. Even taking into account that they played the equivalent of 3½ games in the series, thanks to four overtime periods, that's still a significant increase in both frequency and accuracy.
Anna DeForge was the most obvious marksman against the Fever, but Tamika Whitmore was even more productive, finishing the series with nine 3-pointers after hitting just 21 during the regular season (to be fair, Tan White didn't hit a single 3-pointer against the Sun after tying DeForge for the team lead during the regular season).
All of these numbers matter moving forward, because the Fever are the worst shooting team left in the playoff field. That's not a horrible label to wear given the competition (and it's a lot better than being the best shooting team whose season is finished), but it's a characteristic the team's offense has to overcome. One way to do that is to make more of the shots you hit count for three points.
Not that Brian Winters' team can live on shooting alone, especially if the Fever cool off to the merely good shooting that marked their regular-season statistics. To that point, the Fever averaged seven 3-pointers on 35 percent shooting in two wins against the Shock this season, compared to 6½ 3-pointers on 33 percent shooting in two losses. At least with regard to that small sample, the Fever clearly didn't live and die with the outside shot.
The most notable difference in the wins and losses came on the boards; in their wins the Fever held their own, even outrebounding the Shock in one game, but the team ceded the battle of the boards by an average of 12.5 rebounds in the losses. In part because taking her off the court effectively removed Margo Dydek from Connecticut's rotation, Tammy Sutton-Brown didn't play much in the first round. But with Ebony Hoffman coming off a hamstring injury suffered against Connecticut, Sutton-Brown will need to give Catchings consistent help on the boards against Detroit's massive front line (she had seven rebounds in the first meeting between the teams but just eight total in the next three games).
What the Shock need to do to win
Defense by itself isn't going to carry the day for Detroit, although it came close during a first-round series in which the Shock pulled off a dubious offensive trifecta by shooting less than 40 percent from the floor, 20 percent from the 3-point line and 60 percent from the free-throw line, but it's a good place to start. The Shock survived to play another round in part because of a defense that limited the Liberty to 41 percent shooting (less stingy than their league-leading regular-season numbers but still stifling).
One catch is the Shock's defensive tendency to be at their softest against 3-point shooting. Opponents hit at a respectable 33 percent clip from behind the arc in the regular season, and the Liberty, the league's most accurate 3-point shooting team, hit more than 36 percent of their long-distance shots in the opening round. The Fever thrived on 3-point shooting in their first-round series against the Sun, so the Shock must adjust if the shots start falling in this series.
Detroit controlled the glass against New York, averaging nearly seven rebounds more per game than the Liberty, but considering Bill Laimbeer's team had Cheryl Ford for the entire series against a team that finished with a negative rebounding margin in the regular season, it didn't necessarily exploit what should have been a decided advantage. Indiana isn't a great rebounding team, but it is better equipped than New York to battle on the boards. As mentioned above, when the Shock failed to control that facet of the game against the Fever in the regular season, the results didn't favor Detroit.
On offense, the Shock had five different leading scorers in four games against Indiana (Plenette Pierson and Shannon Johnson tied for the lead in the fourth game), but Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith must take the offensive lead in this series. New York challenged Smith to make shots, giving her more open looks than she saw in most months during her days with the Lynx. She made them pay with some clutch shots down the stretch in Game 3, but overall her season-long shooting funk continued. When Smith's shots are falling, it makes her teammates more dangerous, opening room for post play and penetration.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.