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Friday, October 12, 2012
Fever to face defending champ

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW

There's no other way to put it: Of all the scenarios that you might have envisioned playing out to determine Minnesota's opponent in the WNBA Finals, what happened Thursday was not on anybody's radar.

Indiana coach Lin Dunn had said that she hoped the Fever "could steal" Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Connecticut. And she wasn't sand-bagging. Even the most confident Fever fan had to think it would take a whole lot going right for Indiana to squeak past the Sun on their home court. The Fever had never won a playoff series on the road, after all. It was going to take all hands on deck -- and maybe a lucky bounce or two -- for this to be a Minneapolis-versus-Indianapolis championship series.

What nobody saw coming was a Fever blowout victory -- made even more improbable without one of the team's two co-stars, Katie Douglas.

The Fever's 87-71 total eclipse of the Sun appeared surreal while it was happening, and still seems a little like an Indiana daydream. Not because Indy isn't a good team … but because the Indianapolis native Douglas is such a big part of it, thus losing her appeared so calamitous. She was out for most of the game after a shudder-inducing sprained ankle just a little more than five minutes into Thursday's action.

Katie Douglas
The Fever are considered the underdog in the WNBA Finals -- but even more so if Katie Douglas is unavailable or limited by a left ankle sprain suffered Thursday.

Yet the Fever pulled together, and the game actually played out more like the Sun were missing an essential piece than the Fever were. Led by future Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings, Indiana played smart, rugged defense. And the Fever torched the Sun from behind the arc, making 10 3-pointers.

The victory was one of the proudest accomplishments in Fever history, but trying to repeat that exact kind of effort successfully at least three times is asking a lot. Which might be what Indiana has to do to win this best-of-five series.

The "injury focus" for the WNBA Finals shifts off Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen's left wrist -- which seems well into the manageable stage -- and instead goes to Douglas' left ankle. Her status was listed as "day-to-day" by the Fever late Friday afternoon.

The teams open at Minnesota's Target Center on Sunday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). The Lynx are the defending champions and will have had a week to prepare, finishing their Western Conference finals series in a sweep last Sunday at Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the Fever had to do one of those hopeful packing jobs when they left Indianapolis on Tuesday morning, after a thrilling 78-76 victory in Game 2 Monday night. If they won Thursday over the Sun, they knew they were headed straight to Minneapolis on Friday, and would be there until Thursday, Oct. 18.

Or … their season would come to an end in Connecticut, and the Fever would go home with suitcases full of clean clothes and the dismay of missing another chance at a championship.

Against the Sun in Game 3, Catchings had 22 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots, plus set the tone as she typically does with her defense. Briann January, after a hideous first half, finished very well, with 12 points and four assists. Fellow guard Erin Phillips had 15 points. Erlana Larkins helped Catchings work the boards hard, getting 10 rebounds. And the Fever bench was fantastic, contributing 32 points.

All of that, though, was just to get the chance to face the defending champions, who won in a hard-fought sweep against Atlanta in the WNBA Finals last year. The Lynx at 27-7 had the best record in the regular season this year, and they beat the Fever in both their 2012 meetings.

Those were back-to-back games in September, the first a 66-64 squeaker in Indy won by Whalen's basket with 1.6 seconds left, and the second an 86-79 tour de force by Minnesota's Maya Moore, who scored her season-high 29 points at Target Center.

This is Indiana's second trip to the WNBA Finals, having lost 3-2 to Phoenix in 2009. The Fever are going to be considered underdogs in this series, and even more so if Douglas is unavailable or limited in what she can do.

She had 51 points in the first two games of the East finals. Douglas has been remarkably durable during her 12-season WNBA career, playing less than 31 games only twice. One was her rookie season of 2001, when she appeared in 22 games, and the other was 2003, when she played in 28.

This is her fifth season with the Fever, and it would seem a very cruel twist of both her ankle and fate if she isn't able to play like her usual self in this series. Still, considering the odds that Indiana overcame to make it this far, the Lynx will approach the Fever warily, regardless of Douglas' status.

After all, the Fever are still standing, and like the Lynx, they have past experience in the WNBA Finals. How the Fever got here surprised everyone Thursday, probably even themselves a little bit. But they are here now.