You should probably just ignore the regular season series result between the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever when looking ahead to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Setting aside the fact that they've only played once since the Olympic break:
- The Fever were missing Briann January and Shavonte Zellous in that final game of the season series, a Sun win; they're not All-Stars but still starters throughout the season.
- Asjha Jones only played about 5 minutes in that final meeting.
- Fever guard Erin Phillips missed the first meeting of the season, also a Fever loss. She started and played major minutes in the team's two wins against the Atlanta Dream in the first round.
- Fever forward Erlana Larkins played 25 minutes total against the Sun in the first three meetings between these teams. In contrast, Larkins played at least 25 minutes in each of the Fever's three games in their first round series, averaging 31.66 minutes per game against the Dream.
It's that last point that seems to be most significant in this series, particularly after the way Larkins played in the final game of the Dream series.
Key statistical battleground: offensive rebounding
As it turns out, the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference had the two lowest offensive rebounding percentages in the conference during the regular season (albeit by a very small margin) and thus it's not surprising that rebounding was a significant statistical weakness for both teams. Yet both teams have valid reasons for the poor rebounding efforts that could end up helping them both outperform their regular season numbers.
Despite 2012 MVP Tina Charles being a double-double machine, the Sun were right around average as an offensive rebounding team during the regular season (by percentage). But they were beat by a much more significant margin after the Olympic break when Jones missed most of their games due to injury. Jones' importance to the team was clear during in each of the Sun's first round wins against the New York Liberty - she was either 1 or 2 rebounds short of a double-double herself in each of those two games. With Jones playing regular minutes - as she did for most of this series - the Sun can be a just above average rebounding team and definitely better than what the Fever were for most of this regular season.
The Fever have been a poor offensive rebounding team for a few seasons now, so this isn't a new story for them. However, there are two things that stand out about them when taking a closer look at the numbers. First, the Fever were second in the Eastern Conference in second chance points despite having the second lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the conference (29.4%), which is only outdone by the Sun having the lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the conference (29.2%) and finishing first in second chance points. What explains that (for either team)? For both teams it might come down to a lot of missed shots close to the basket.
As you may already know, short range shots tend to generate shorter rebounds that are easier for the offense to recover; the Sun had the largest proportion of shots from the 6-10 foot range and in taking the most attempts in the conference they had the most misses and ended up with the most second chance points per game in the conference. Similarly, Indiana, one of the slowest paced teams in the league, took the largest proportion of shots in the league from the 1-5 foot range during the regular season and made the lowest percentage in the Eastern Conference (51.8%). The Fever just had more opportunities than most teams and converted them into second chance points (and, for whatever it's worth, I'd be curious about where the Fever ranked in second chance 3-pointers more specifically). In other words, despite not being a strong rebounding team - and consistently being out-rebounded by opponents - the Fever have been awfully good at converting those second chance opportunities they do get into points by virtue of their shot distribution.
But the second point might be the more important development in that it's the most recent development: after getting beaten badly on the boards in first game of their series against Atlanta, they won the battle in the second game and then dominated the third. So what happened?
Key player: Erlana Larkins, rebounding machine
Erlana Larkins has started four games for the Fever in 2012: the final two games of the regular season and the final two games of that three-game series against the Dream. At 6-foot-1, she might seem to be a bit undersized to be starting at center but she is not only the team's best rebounder but also one of the best offensive rebounders in the entire league (by percentage). And her 20-rebound performance in Game Three almost entirely explains the way the Fever dominated the Dream on the boards.
Larkins attacks the boards with a tenacity that is made more stunning by the fact that she was out of the league for the last two seasons. And if she can outrebound the Dream's bigs the way she did, she can probably hold her own on the boards against almost anyone.
Larkins was one of two changes the Fever made to the starting lineup after Game One - replacing Zellous with Phillips was the other - but her role in the rotation is the most significant difference between the Fever teams that showed up to play the Sun prior to the Olympics and the one that will show up at Mohegan Sun Arena today. While the teams split the two games when both teams were at full strength during the regular season, Larkins wasn't starting either and could make a major difference in the outcome.
X-Factor: Who else steps up beyond the top players?
One of the main arguments in favor of 2011 Tamika Catchings repeating as MVP this season was that she accounted for a larger percentage of her team's statistical production than anyone in the league, which is a kinder way of saying she carried her team during the regular season. Not too far behind in second place in individual percentage of valuable contributions was Charles. We can take that information in one of two ways: either both teams need outstanding play from their stars - and in both cases, it was really the team's top two players who carried them - or both teams will need someone outside of their stars to step up. Let's entertain the latter for the time being.
Obviously, Indiana has already gotten help from the "supporting cast" in the playoffs in the form of Erlana Larkins. On top of that, 3-point shooting is a major strength for the Fever and 3-point production from the supporting cast will always aid a team that starts small with Catchings start at the power forward. But the real question on their end is about their reserve post players.
While Larkins started, normal starter Tammy Sutton-Brown only played 12.5 minutes; Jessica Davenport and Sasha Goodlett didn't even play. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a post other than Larkins will have to play some quality minutes against Charles and the Sun. The question is just who will step up and what sort of tradeoffs the Fever will have to make - if it's Larkins who gets less minutes, the Fever lose some of that rebounding punch they showed in the first round.
For the Sun, the issue is scoring efficiency. Again, part of what we see in their statistical profile is overstated because they're a better team on both ends of the floor with Jones in the lineup. Nevertheless, opponents outshot the Sun this season and a large part of that is the combination of relying rather heavily on mid-range shots - including a lot of long 2-point shots - and outside of Kara Lawson and Mistie Mims, who was arguably their best bench player despite Renee Montgomery winning the 2012 Sixth Woman of the Year award, they don't have a lot of efficient scorers. And no, that's not forgetting Tina Charles - as described previously, she's an average efficiency volume scoring center.
Coach Lin Dunn's Fever teams have a reputation as a strong defensive team and that continued this season: Indiana allowed the fewest points off turnovers in the league and the fewest fast break points in the Eastern Conference, meaning their defensive prowess is heavily predicated on simply denying easy scoring opportunities. The worst case scenario for the Sun is getting involved in a game where they're exchanging long twos for Fever threes with Larkins continuing to dominate the boards and giving the Fever second chance shots.
Yet that brings us right back to the original argument about Catchings' MVP candidacy: although she was named defensive player of the year, she can't defend the Sun all by herself. The worst case scenario for the Fever is double teaming Charles, leaving shooters wide open for threes, and unable to get the points off turnovers that they normally thrive on. The Fever are going to have to figure out a way to defend Charles without giving up a lot of open shots on the perimeter that the Sun will willingly take and make at an above average rate.
Looking at the whole picture, it feels like it would be easier for the Sun to take things elements of the Fever's offense, which was the best in the league, than vice versa if for no other reason because the Sun have homecourt advantage. But if the Fever get hot and can defend Charles by committee - thankfully, Charles' 80.2% free throw shooting percentage makes hack-a-Charles a poor strategy so we won't have to endure that type of slog - they could easily find themselves right back in the WNBA Finals.