WNBA Playoffs 2013: How the Atlanta Dream unseated the defending champion Indiana Fever

Armintie Herrington's rebounding an defense were a major part of why the Atlanta Dream are returning to the WNBA Finals. - Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Dream swept the Indiana Fever in the Eastern Conference Finals to make their third WNBA Finals in four years. The way they did it isn't terribly surprising.

The key to the Eastern Conference Finals was obvious coming in, remained so after Game 1, and continued to have a significant impact on Game 2: the turnover margin was clearly going to go a long way to determining the outcome.

Unsurprisingly, the Atlanta Dream dominated that category pretty much from start to finish in their two-game sweep of the Indiana Fever.

Key statistic: The Dream won the points off turnovers battle 40-11

Ultimately, the turnover margin itself (approximately a 5% difference between the two teams) didn't end up being quite as big a deal as the ability to convert them into points. And what's astounding about the points off turnover margin is not so much the Dream's 40 - they averaged 18.24 points off turnovers per game this season - but the Fever's 11.

We should have expected somewhere around 15-16 points off turnovers per game for the Fever - during the regular season, the Dream gave up nearly 15 points off turnovers per game and the Fever scored a little more than 16 points off turnovers per game. But the Dream did two things well to stop the Fever from getting points in transition.

Dream MVP: Angel McCoughtry's ability to get to the free throw line

The Dream simply didn't turn the ball over much themselves: 11 turnovers per game over the two-game series is a great number for just about any team that plays at their pace. The Dream had the athletes to attack the basket and the Fever did a poor job of putting up resistance.

Angel McCoughtry's ability to get to the free throw line is among her biggest strengths as a scorer - even if she has a relatively "quiet" game in terms of field goal attempts, she can always find her points by getting to the free throw line.

Against the Fever, McCoughtry earned 13 free throw attempts and made good on 12 (92.3% free throw percentage). Anytime a player like McCoughtry is at a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 50% - as she was in Game One - the Dream's opponent is going to struggle because it means that eventually they're going to shift more attention away from someone else to try stopping McCoughtry.

With the Fever seemingly unable to stop McCoughtry - and Tiffany Hayes in Game 1 - from getting into the paint for high percentage scoring opportunities, the Dream didn't have to spend much time playing around the ball and risking turnovers in the half court.

Key player: Armintie Herrington's defense and hustle

But the other end of that turnover differential was that the Dream used the full extent of their athleticism on the perimeter to make the Fever uncomfortable. And it was far more evident in Game 2 than it was Game 1.

The Fever got to a point in the second half of Game 2 where they stopped moving off the ball and stopped attacking with the ball - everyone was essentially looking to everyone else to make something happen rather than working as a unit to create scoring opportunities.

Statistically, the Fever's stagnation showed up in some rather ugly numbers in the second half: they shot 21.9% from the field and had just 2 assists. Although assists are never the best measure of ball movement because they don't include missed shots, the combination of those low assist rate and poor shooting certainly reflects the observation that their offense ground to a half.

Armintie Herrington's aggressive defense on and off the ball was a major part of what ended up pacifying the dynamic offense that the Fever unleashed against the Sky: she was in full denial for most of the game, forcing Fever wings to catch the ball almost entirely out of position to make a play. When they did catch the ball with Herrington on them, they didn't really have any space to go anywhere. In short, even when Herrington wasn't getting a steal or her hands on the ball, she was a presence out on the wing. But she put up another impressive number considering how aggressive she was on defense: she finished the series with a series-high 6 steals to just 4 fouls, which is an impressive ratio for someone with such active hands.

With McCoughtry being a defensive presence that has to be accounted for by opposing offenses as well as point guards Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas - who played together quite a bit - applying pressure, the Fever just never seemed to get themselves in any kind of rhythm. This goes back to a major point associated with the turnover margin: point guard play.

Fever MVP: Catchings carried the offensive load

Tamika Catchings said before the series that they needed Briann January to be a scorer in order to win and, quite simply, she wasn't. January shot just 3-for-13 (23.07%) for the series, which simply added to - as much as it was a byproduct of - the impact of the Dream's pressure. January was a significant part of the Fever's offense throughout the season and with her essentially a non-factor as a distributor or passer, the fluid offense consisting of drives and kick outs, backcuts, and pick and rolls was reduced to players watching each other going one-on-one.

In that regard, another statistic that really stands out from the series is the Fever's shooting efficiency and, by association, their synergy rating.

eFG%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTA/FGA

Adj Synergy

Ast/FGM

3p%

Ind

45.00%

18.48%

34.38%

34.44%

0.22

60.80%

28.57%

Atl

49.74%

13.26%

31.11%

31.05%

0.49

53.80%

20.58%

Weighted

eFg%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTA/FGA

Ind

-0.47

-0.44

0.14

0.07

Four Factors statistics for Atlanta & Indiana for Games 1 & 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.

The short explanation of the above numbers: when you turn the ball over at a high rate and shoot as poorly as the Fever did in Game 2, the assisted field goal rate doesn't matter quite as much: a turnover prone team that relies heavily on passing and is shooting below 30% from the 3-point line over any period of time just isn't going to be very productive.

Catchings summed up the problem well after Game 1.

"We are not reacting fast," Catchings said after Game 1. "They are a quick, defensive team, they rely on steals and turnovers and that's what sparks their offense. We didn't do a good enough job moving the ball quickly or taking the open shots that we had instead of driving the ball into the defense. We'll be better come Sunday."

Unfortunately, they didn't exactly do a better job at home yesterday.

The main thing kept the Fever in the game - and quite possibly the only thing that kept them in it - was the play of Catchings. Although both teams actually shot well in Game 1, in Game 2 Catchings shot 6-for-13 (46.2%) including 3-for-6 from 3-point range and 9-for-10 from the free throw line; the rest of the Fever were just 12-for-51 (23.52%). She just didn't get any consistent help over the two games - as a whole, the Fever simply didn't handle the Dream's pressure well at all.

We could go on about Catchings, but the series sort of framed her 2013 WNBA MVP candidacy even in loss: she had the most responsibility of any of the top candidates and consistently managed to keep this team afloat.

What's next for the Fever?

Winning back-to-back championships is difficult in any professional sports league, as the Indiana Fever reminded the Minnesota Lynx and the rest of the basketball world in 2012. It's even harder when a team has to endure the type of injury epidemic that the Fever suffered through.

And yet, there they were - right back in the Eastern Conference Finals despite being the fourth seed. Perhaps people are tired of hearing it, but the Fever have nothing to be ashamed of after this season.

Lin Dunn & Co. have built a winning culture around arguably the most versatile two-way player in the league. They have a number of young players who are still growing into their roles. If they get healthier next season and add some frontcourt depth - they'll hold the fifth pick in the draft where they should be able to find a fit - they could find themselves right back in this position even with other teams in the Eastern Conference looking to make improvements.

For more on the series, check out our Eastern Conference Finals storystream.

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