INDIANAPOLIS – After 80 minutes of highly intense basketball at Minnesota, the passion and adrenaline of the 2015 WNBA Finals shift to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Mix the aforementioned ingredients and it often leads to tough, aggressive and exciting play. The Indiana Fever and Minnesota Lynx, two of the most successful franchises in league history, aren’t strangers to that style.
“I wouldn’t say we’re intentional about being physical, but I do feel like, as a team, we frustrate a lot of people because of the way we play,” said Fever forward Tamika Catchings. “We’re all in … everybody’s moving. Kind of like that string, we’re all connected.”
Indiana and Minnesota are tied at one victory apiece in the best-of-five Finals, with Game 3 set for Friday night. After the Fever fell in a rugged Game 2 on Tuesday, Coach Stephanie White expressed dissatisfaction about some officiating calls, but she clearly had moved on when she met the media after Thursday’s practice.
However, she noted her expectations that hard-nosed play will continue from both clubs.
“These are two hungry teams that want to win a championship,” White said. “Our two teams have been two of the toughest in terms of mental toughness and physical toughness for as long as I can remember. I certainly don’t expect it to change.”
It has been an intriguing series to consume for fans.
Coaches are playing a chess game. Teams are making the requisite adjustments. Players such as Indiana’s Briann January and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles are elevating their game.
And both teams are trying to impose their will.
“Both teams want to be aggressive,” Minnesota Coach Cheryl Reeve said before her team’s practice at the Fieldhouse. “I think that’s the better word because I think ‘physical’ has such a negative connotation. I think both of us are just trying to be aggressive.”
As White emphasized, both teams have ample abilities to adjust whenever required.
“We can play whatever game we need to play,” said White, who is the first rookie head coach to make the Finals. “And we will, and so will Minnesota, because these are two teams that have been there. These are two teams that understand. And these are two teams that are going to fight tooth-and-nail to the finish.
“I think that’s one of the great things about this series: You know it’s going to be a battle night in and night out, and it certainly makes for great basketball.”
For the Fever, January is averaging 18 points in two Finals games, almost 10 above her regular-season average. White said the Indiana point guard is playing at a comfortable pace and capitalizing on her opportunities. Also, the increase in points hasn’t curtailed the All-WNBA Defensive Team honoree’s performance at the other end.
The Fever offense is no different from most in its design to locate open shots for all five players on the court. January, who is 13-of-27 on field goals in the series, is simply finding herself open more with the help of center Erlana Larkins and other teammates.
“Erlana has been setting me some great screens,” January said. “And we’ve been doing great jobs of just moving the ball. My teammates have been finding me and I’ve been open. And it’s been my time to put those shots up and score.”
For Minnesota, the 6-foot-6 Fowles has hurt the Fever with 19-of-28 shooting, 42 points and 20 rebounds in two Finals games. Her size makes her difficult to defend for the smaller Fever. Larkins, at 6-1, knows the job of dealing with Fowles in the paint won’t get easier.
“I have to stay more connected to her,” Larkins said. “The guards have been baiting us in the screen-and-roll. I’ve been staying a little too long, and she’s been diving and they’ve been giving it to her over the top.
“(It’s about) staying more connected to her and forcing other people to do stuff. … That’s an easy dropoff to her every time in the pick-and-roll if we don’t stay connected.”
Largely on the strength of Fowles’ play, the Lynx scored 34 points in the paint in Game 1 and 40 in Game 2. And the Lynx, after seeing the Fever almost double their second-chance points in the opener, came back to record 21 second-chance points to the Fever’s eight in the second game.
“We have to protect the paint,” White said. “We can’t give offensive putback scores, and we can’t turn it over for scores.”
White and Catchings both talked about the Fever’s need to maintain composure when Minnesota ratchets up the defensive heat. In Game 2, the Fever let their equanimity slip, especially in the second half when they committed 14 turnovers.
“We haven’t played our best game yet,” Catchings said. “For us to have our best game, we have to stay focused, stay poised.”
In Game 2, Catchings struggled with foul trouble, although she still contributed 11 points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes. After the 77-71 defeat, she talked about the Fever needing to “bottle up every sense of frustration” and “let it explode when we get back home.”
Game 3 at home looms. Larkins, for one, envisions the passionate Catchings leading the Fever by taking her own words to heart.
“Don’t be surprised tomorrow when you see the beast of Tamika. … I just expect her to erupt in Game 3,” Larkins said.