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|There's plenty of talent -- starting with the Dream's Armintie Price -- in the East finals.|
The toughest job in Conseco Fieldhouse for Game 1 of the WNBA Eastern Conference finals between the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Thursday) might belong to the person responsible for the lighting. Three of the most distinctive stars in the sport -- Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas and Angel McCoughtry -- have a way of casting long shadows on a basketball court.
Not to worry. Armintie Price is getting good at being heard but not seen.
"She's just a true leader on the court," Dream coach Marynell Meadors said of her fifth-year player. "She's a coach on the court."
Price won't be the center of attention Thursday night, and there's no shame in that. Elvis, who performed his final concert in the old basketball arena in town, might struggle for top billing against headliners like Catchings, Douglas and McCoughtry. But if most eyes will be elsewhere, Price will at least have the ears of her teammates.
That the previous two teams to represent the Eastern Conference in the WNBA finals are playing to decide which one gets another crack at a championship says a lot about the staying power of the stars involved. One pro franchise in Indianapolis might be suffering as age and its attendant injuries catch up with a star quarterback, but Catchings and Douglas remain at the top of their games after being in the league for a decade (11 years, in Douglas' case). For the Dream, McCoughtry has at least matched the breakout second season that helped take her team to the brink of a championship and earn her a place on Team USA for the world championship.
That these two teams are back also says something about each squad's ability to reshape around those stars.
Aside from Catchings and Douglas, the Fever will likely use just two other players who took the court against the Mercury in Game 5 of the 2009 WNBA finals: Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport. Just a year removed from their own conference championship, the Dream have turned over two starters from that postseason run. Both teams lost point guards to injury early, Briann January for the Fever and Shalee Lehning for the Dream, yet both survived backcourt challenges in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe that just means everyone is replaceable, but it still means finding the right replacements is key.
Price played sparingly after arriving via trade from Chicago in 2009 and didn't start a game last season until the playoffs, but this season she grew into starter's minutes and a captain's role. A season ago, she was a nice player. Now Price is invaluable. Dream assistant Carol Ross has seen a lot change in the player she recruited at Ole Miss nearly a decade ago.
"She's now like a player-coach because she coaches in the offseason at Ole Miss," said Ross, who left the school in 2007. "She has a great basketball IQ. Now, I can ask her [about defensive options]. I might not always agree with her, but I'm always interested in her opinion because she sees the game very well from the defensive end.
"I can assure you, I didn't ask her that when she was a college player, but I'm asking her now."
What answers they come up with will have a lot to do with how the series unfolds. The Fever enter with the stingier defense, allowing opponents an average of just 73.8 points per game in the regular season and 73.7 points in three games against the Liberty in the first round. But the Dream use their defense as a weapon, averaging 9.3 steals per game and forcing 17.4 turnovers in the regular season. McCoughtry loves to gamble and go off script, a luxury the Dream can afford because Price, Erika de Souza, Sancho Lyttle and even Alison Bales off the bench are big enough and athletic enough to turn any resulting 5-on-4 advantage for the offense into a stalemate.
"We can play ugly and still play well," Ross said. "We can play fast, when it looks like Showtime, but we also have learned how to grind them out. A lot of that's because we've had to play a lot of the season with one arm tied behind our backs [because of injuries to Lehning, Lyttle and others]. It was hard to develop chemistry, so we had to develop personality and whoever was in that slot just had to go with it."
The roles are different for the Fever, but the script is the same. Find the players who fit the puzzle -- whether it's Tangela Smith, who will have to help Sutton-Brown, Davenport and Catchings keep things respectable on the boards, or Erin Phillips, whose toughness will be in demand if she's asked to slow Lindsey Harding.
"A lot of role players in the past are now starters," Meadors said of her team during the conference semifinals. "They don't really care who scores, they don't care who gets rebounds, they don't care who gets loose balls."
She might as well have been speaking for Fever coach Lin Dunn.
The focus of this series will be the stars. It will be on Catchings barreling down the court with all the caution of a crash test, either in possession of the ball or seeking to remove it from the temporary custody of an opponent. It will be on Douglas flicking her wrist from beyond the 3-point line or sauntering her way through traffic before releasing an arcing runner. Or it will be on McCoughtry going from peeved to placid and back again on her way to 30 points.
That's as it should be -- they might not be the three best players in the league, but each is one of a kind. Which makes finding the right supporting casts all the more impressive.
Enjoy the show from the stars when the Fever and Dream meet, but keep an eye on the shadows.
"The season starts back over now, so the record doesn't matter," Price said. "It's just the fight that's in the players."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.