Catchings, Fever need to control the game to stay alive in East finals

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, November 2, 2015

It is the nature of the WNBA's short series in its first two rounds that a single game is the difference between all-square and one team's back against the wall. So it is in a best-of-three format, elevating the need for a team to keep an even-keel personality with just the right heightened sense of urgency.

Indiana and New York were both there in the Eastern Conference semifinals and prevailed. Now it's Indiana's turn again to fend off elimination in the East finals, with Game 2 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Back home at Banker's Life Fieldhouse, where Indiana went 11-6 during the regular season, the Fever have to play a very different kind of game than they did in the series opener Wednesday. That 84-67 New York victory at Madison Square Garden was a best-of-the-Liberty show, as they dominated offensively from both the perimeter and the paint.

"We talk about controlling the controllables," Fever coach Stephanie White said after Wednesday's game. "Our effort, the hustle plays, being there on our rotations, having each other's backs, box outs, setting great screens, using screens. We didn't take care of our controllables.

"Some of those things we can tighten up and make it more difficult for New York. Will that make them shoot a lower percentage? I don't know. But we have to make life more difficult than we made it today."

That's a very frank assessment of what it's like to face the Liberty. Indiana could indeed be far more energetic and effective on Sunday, but even that doesn't mean the Fever will be able to stop New York's offense as much as they'll need to.

The Liberty shot 56.5 percent from the floor in Game 1, including 57.1 percent from behind the arc. That contrasts to their 42.6 shooting percentage during the regular season, but it didn't necessarily feel fluky; this is more like what happens when the Liberty are in alpha-dog mode against a defense on its heels. And even a normally very good defense can fall into that quicksand against the Liberty.

"It's hard, but it's something that we have to do better," Indiana's Tamika Catchings said of facing the Liberty when they're scoring so well both inside and outside. "We knew this was a tough team. You know the bigs they have in there, and we're kind of small in the post. But we've been able to get by with it."

If there's one thing everyone expects to see Sunday, it's that the Fever will play like there's no tomorrow -- because there won't be if they don't win.

"Indiana knows how hard they're going to have to play against us," New York coach Bill Laimbeer said "They're going to bring a better, more intense effort; I'm sure of that."

That's something the Liberty actually have done well themselves in all four of their 2015 playoff games thus far. Even their 86-83 double-overtime loss to Washington in their playoff opener Sept. 18 was not about a poor showing by the Liberty. Rather, it was a combination of a few small mistakes that were magnified and the fact they went 16-for-26 from the free throw line.

Which is why Laimbeer can tell his team that Sunday isn't about finding another gear in order to advance to the WNBA Finals, which would be the first time for New York since 2002. It's about doing what they already know how to do.

"I think everybody is locked in," said Liberty veteran Swin Cash, who previously has won WNBA titles in Detroit and Seattle.

And what about on the other side? The Fever franchise is making a record 11th consecutive appearance in the playoffs. With Catchings as the team's leader throughout that time, the Fever have had a consistency to their effort and performance that is particularly noticeable in its absence, which was the case Wednesday.

Catchings doesn't have a great deal of time left competitively in the WNBA. By her own decision, she intends to retire after the 2016 season. Despite the Fever's constant postseason presence over the past decade, Catchings doesn't take for granted that the streak will go to 12. For all she knows, Sunday could be her last playoff game.

Catchings put a big onus of Wednesday's loss on herself, saying she didn't do enough to slow down New York rookie center Kiah Stokes, who finished 9-for-11 from the field and 3-for-3 from the line for 21 points. The Fever hope that injured post player Lynetta Kizer, who played a combined 14 minutes in the first series against Chicago and not at all Wednesday, will be able to go Sunday. Regardless, Indiana has to be motivated by a now-or-never mindset.

"It helps us if we use it to our advantage," Catchings said. "In the Chicago series, we had that chip on our shoulder, that edge. We'll be focused Sunday; we'll be ready."

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