Fever one win away from WNBA Finals

Heading into this 2014 WNBA season, the Indiana Fever weren’t expected to rule the Eastern Conference. I thought there was a high probably that they might make some considerable changes. The future appeared to be the vision rather than the present as the team drafted Natalie Achonwa, who would miss the season after tearing her left ACL while at Notre Dame, at No. 9 – their second first-round pick.

Oh, and a few weeks later, sharpshooter Jeanette Pohlen sustained a torn left Achilles. Then, a back injury sidelined leader Tamika Catchings for a substantial part of the shortened season (18 games).

A rebuilding year? Definitely not.

In what Fever head coach Lin Dunn planned to be her last season of coaching after truly a Hall of Fame career, the Indiana Fever are one win away from advancing to its third WNBA Finals. They lead their best-of-three series with Chicago 1-0.

Tamika Catchings blocks out Chicago's Elene Delle Donne.

Tamika Catchings blocks out Chicago’s Elene Delle Donne.

After sweeping Washington, and as Chicago went the distance against Atlanta in the opening round of the 2014 WNBA Playoffs, Indiana sat back and took advantage of some much-needed rest.

“I think everybody needs to understand that this is the most condensed, intense, short WNBA season we’ve ever had,” said Dunn. “I think players are mentally and physically fatigued. I’m surprised that there haven’t been more injuries. It’s really hard on these players. They left Turkey and two days later they are in training camp and they crammed all of this season together because of the World Championships.

“It’s going to be survival of the fittest, survival of the toughest — mentally and physically.”

Dunn calls her team “warriors,” and unlike Chicago, they are a veteran group. Briann January, Shavonte Zellous, Erlana Larkins, and Catchings all were part of the 2012 championship team and have considerable playoff game experience under their belt. For Catchings, it’s more than 50 games.

This is all new to the Sky. They used a 16-point comeback to capture their first playoff-series win since 2006. The Fever, meanwhile, are playing in the postseason for the 10th consecutive season.

Meeting for the second straight postseason, the Fever are so close to reaching the ultimate series, the last one, against either Phoenix or Minnesota.

The Chicago Sky are led by the exceptional Elena Delle Donne, who missed 18 games this season as she battled Lyme disease. Handling her, slowing her, and frustrating her is priority No. 1 for the Fever.

Much of those responsibilities will fall on Catchings, the five-time Defensive Player of the Year award recipient. She must stay out of foul trouble, cause havoc (as she usually does), and make Delle Donne uncomfortable. Nobody will outwork Catchings — that’s for certain.

Karima Christmas and Erlana Larkins, when Sylvia Fowles is out of the game, will also take turns on the 6-foot-5 versatile 24-year-old. Communication, regardless of who is checking her, is essential.

“We just got to stay focused and I think played defense is going to be a big key in this matchup,” said Zellous, who tallied 18 points in their Game 1 win.

One thing the Fever are trying to do is make Delle Donne work at both ends, not just on offense. The Fever constantly emphasize getting to the rim, not just to score but to also get fouled. They made more foul shots than Washington attempted in their semi-finals series. Pushing the ball before Chicago’s defense is set plays nicely into their hands.

Indiana held off the Sky in Game 1, 77-70, thus keeping hold of home-court advantage. Though it wasn’t much of an advantage during the regular season – they went 7-10 compared to a 9-8 on the road – it’s playoff time and an improved and rowdy atmosphere.

“That’s a big plus in a three-game series,” Dunn said of home-court advantage.

Catchings — the WNBA’s all-time postseason leader in points, rebounds, steals, and free throws — feels good physically, is happy with how well the team is clicking, and says the whole team is excited about the way they’re playing. Maybe the back injury was a blessing in disguise?

“Hey, God has a plan for everything, right,” she said, laughing.

Chicago, hosting Game 2 (4pm ET Monday), has its back against the wall and it’s win or stay home in this instance. That typically raises an entire team, but it’s also tremendous pressure to have on their shoulders. They’ve struggled all season against the Fever beyond the arc, partly a testament to Indiana’s defense, thus the inside game will be even more pivotal.

The Fever, meanwhile, have to play together, play their elite-level defense they are known for around the league, and remain focused on the task at hand.

“We’ve got to put a 40-minute game together,” said Catchings.

Though the four-game season series was a split, Indiana has had Chicago’s number for the longest. And I expect that to continue. If the defensive intensity is there, they slow Delle Donne, and get to the foul line, the Fever will earn their way to another WNBA Finals.

So much for an off year, huh?

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