- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Indiana Fever players sort of kept hoping against hope that Katie Douglas might show up. You know, some kind of medical-miracle thing that could make a sprained, swollen ankle well again. But they certainly weren't counting on it.
"It wasn't sounding good, so we continued our preparation without her," Fever guard Briann January said. "It's one of those things where we figured out our game plan where if we'd had her, that's great. But if we don't, we're ready."
Indiana certainly showed that Sunday night in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, as the Fever beat defending champion Minnesota 76-70 at Target Center. Douglas, trying desperately to do whatever she can to help her ankle heal, stayed back home in Indiana and watched on television.
The Fever now have won back-to-back road games against the teams that finished first in the Eastern and Western conferences. And they've done it without Douglas, who suffered the left ankle injury about five minutes into Game 3 of the East finals last Thursday in Connecticut.
So who has been crafting these amazing scripts the past week for Indiana? Angelo Pizzo? Film buffs know him: He's the screenwriter for both "Hoosiers" and "Rudy." And the Fever lately have played with what has seemed like Hollywood magic.
Down 1-0 in the East finals, they won Game 2 last Monday in Indiana on Shavonte Zellous' buzzer-beater. Then led by "the franchise," Tamika Catchings, and a terrific supporting ensemble effort Thursday, the Fever pounded the stuffing out of the Sun after Douglas was sent off in an ambulance for X-rays.
Indiana wasn't quite as dominant Sunday against the Lynx, but the Fever still were more than good enough. Indiana seemed to have the "hustle" edge, and played classic Indy-style defense, holding the Lynx to 39.1 percent shooting from the field.
This didn't surprise Minnesota, because the memory of its two regular-season games against Indiana -- back-to-back on Sept. 14 and 17 in Indianapolis and Minneapolis, respectively -- were still pretty fresh. The Lynx won them both, but they were battles.
So was Sunday's game. However this time, the Fever became just the second team this season to beat the Lynx on their home court. (Connecticut also did it in July.)
"This is the environment you live for," Catchings said of the crowd of 14,322 that didn't get to see the familiar Lynx postgame "Apache" dance after victories.
Catchings, who led Indiana with 20 points, is one of the Fever players who went through a disappointing 3-2 series loss to Phoenix in the 2009 WNBA Finals. January was a rookie that year, and talked about the difference in having experience.
"Now, I'm able to kind of step back and see the big picture better," said January, who had 11 points and six assists Sunday. "I enjoy the process a little more now."
But one key player who's getting her first exposure to the WNBA Finals, though, is Fever post player Erlana Larkins, who was as big a factor as anyone in Indy's victory. She was out of the WNBA the past two seasons, and wasn't sure she would even make the Fever roster earlier this summer.
But she has worked her way into the starting lineup, and she has the same kind of gritty "edge," if you will, that Catchings and Douglas have. Larkins had 16 points on 8-of-12 shooting Sunday and also showed off her specialty -- rebounding -- with 15 boards, which ties for second-most in a WNBA Finals game.
The woman who holds that record -- Minnesota's Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who had 16 boards while with Connecticut in the 2005 Finals -- gave Larkins some encouragement after the younger woman was cut by New York before the 2010 season. McWilliams-Franklin played for the Liberty that year and told Larkins not to get
"Sometimes it helps you to move out of your comfort zone when you've been cut and humbled," McWilliams-Franklin said of Larkins. "When she was let go, she went overseas and just played her game and built confidence. I've always liked Erlana, and I told her back then, 'Keep your head up.'
"I guess I'm a sucker for people who work hard, and she has. Am I happy she played so well against us tonight? No, but I can appreciate someone who plays really hard. It doesn't mean I want them to win, of course, just that I like her game."
Fever coach Lin Dunn really likes it, too.
"[Larkins] does the dirty work," Dunn said. "She sets the hard screen. She goes and gets the rebound. She's got three people hanging on her, and she goes back up and puts it back up."
Larkins also had what Dunn called a "thunder" block against Minnesota's Rebekkah Brunson. It sent the same message that the Fever did for this entire game: Douglas or no Douglas, they are not going to back down.
The Lynx, who trailed 43-40 at halftime, seemed as if they were regaining control in the third quarter, and led 58-56 heading into the fourth. But instead of the home team pulling away, the Fever stood even taller, outscoring the Lynx 20-12 in the final 10 minutes.
"We had some dry spells before this season," said Minnesota's Maya Moore, who was 4-of-14 from the field for 14 points. "We have a lot of offensive weapons on this team, so that's something we can fix. But it stems from problems on our defense; when we're not locked in defensively, it makes everything harder for us. We all are going to have to make plays, like Seimone [Augustus] did for us tonight."
Augustus led the Lynx with 23 points, but she scored only one of them in the fourth quarter, when Minnesota faded instead of coming on strong.
The Lynx didn't lose any of their playoff games at home last season, when they beat San Antonio 2-1, Phoenix 2-0 and Atlanta 3-0 to take the league title. So Sunday's loss was alarming for the Lynx. By the same token, they don't want to be overly worried about it.
"It's one game," Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen said. "We'll make some corrections and get ready for Wednesday."
Game 2 is back at Target Center that night. Any chance Douglas might be in Minnesota then? Dunn was frank: If so, it will either be because Douglas is somehow actually ready to play at a high level for that game or because she's out for the entire series, and so traveling on the ankle won't matter in terms of trying to get ready.
It's still a day-to-day thing. If the medical staff thinks that Douglas can't play Wednesday, but just might be able to either Friday for Game 3 or next Sunday for Game 4, if necessary, then she won't make the trip to Minneapolis at all this week.
Either way, the Fever -- who also got 13 points from guard Erin Phillips -- served notice in the opener that they are not going to make it easy for the Lynx to repeat. Far from it.
"They have some great players, and we just have to make it a team effort to try to contain them," Larkins said. "We've made it to this point, so what's there to fear? We know they're the defending champions. But we're here for a reason."
13dBonnie D. Ford