Who: #1 Indiana Fever vs #4 New York Liberty
What: Eastern Conference playoffs, first round
When: First game - Thursday, September 15 at 8 p.m. EDT (ESPN2) in Indianapolis (full schedule)
Season series: 2-2 (click here for summary)
Indiana Fever profile:
* Largest positive differential in Eastern Conference since All-Star break
** Lowest offensive rebounding percentage in Eastern Conference
Strength: Perimeter shooting defense
In the final 17 games of their season, the Indiana Fever held their opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 45.97%, which - because the Connecticut Sun shot so poorly - gave them the biggest shooting efficiency differential in the conference. A large part of that was clamping down on the three point line - the Fever held opponents to a league-low 30.70% from beyond the arc in that time.
Obviously, a large part of that is the play of WNBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tamika Catchings, but it's hard then to ignore what players like Katie Douglas and Erin Phillips must mean to that kind of effort as well.
Weakness: Offensive rebounding
Maybe if you're shooting well getting offensive rebounds doesn't matter quite as much, but the Fever had the lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the conference post-All Star Game, which was lower than the Tulsa Shock for whatever it's worth.
Their lack of offensive rebounds is somewhat justifiable - 28.12% of the Fever's shots after the All-Star break were threes, the highest rate of three point shooting in the Eastern Conference in the second half of the season. But the other part of the problem is that the Fever don't have a whole lot of dominant rebounders.
X-factor: Jessica Davenport, C
Davenport has been considered a candidate for Most Improved Player and Sixth Woman of the Year by some throughout the season and leads the team with an offensive rebounding percentage of 8.83%. She is also their primary post scoring threat as the team's third leading scorer (10.7 ppg) so her ability to score inside as well as rebound could make a difference.
Regular season statistical MVP: Tamika Catchings
While Davenport is the team's offensive rebounding leader, Catchings lead on the defensive boards, which is either one more notch in her MVP profile or a troubling sign for the Fever: Catchings rebounded better in wins (6.5 rebounds per game) than losses (8.0 rpg) this season in addition to shooting threes much better in wins. As good as Catchings is, it makes sense that a poor rebounding team would struggle when relying so heavily upon their small forward to get defensive rebounds on top of everything else she does.
New York Liberty profile
Strength: Forcing turnovers at a league-high rate
Turnovers are by no means the only, or even the best, measure of defensive potency. But they sure don't help opponents either. The Liberty's defense is the more consistently aggressive in the league and can cause turnovers just in the way they overplay and disrupt opponents.
And don't let the fact that they're seventh in the league in defense (96.69 points per 100 possessions allowed) fool you - not only do they challenge shots reasonably well, but they turn their turnovers into the second most points off turnovers per game (18.74). They make their turnovers count and that makes them extra painful for the opposition.
Weakness: Putting opponents on the free throw line
The consequence of aggressive defense is more fouls, more fouls lead to more free throws. But maybe more surprising is that they're not particularly adept at getting to the line themselves, despite having a player like Cappie Pondexter who one might figure is more than capable of driving and drawing contact.
But anytime free throw rate is your biggest weakness, you're in a good situation - it generally means you're doing a lot of other things right and in this case it's a by-product of defense.
X-factor: Kia Vaughn
As a strong candidate for the 2011 Most Improved Player award, Vaughn's rebounding could make the difference in this series - in the Liberty's two wins, she had 9 apiece. In their losses, she averaged 6. Making Vaughn's rebounding important is that the Liberty are really a below average defensive rebounding team - allowing Indiana offensive boards will make it hard to win this series, especially since they need to "steal" a road game. Vaughn is a player that needs to play well in order for the Liberty to win this series.
Regular season statistical MVP: Cappie Pondexter
This is obvious, but worth highlighting nonetheless: Pondexter is the Liberty's top player, but her struggles recently after tweaking her ankle have to be an area of concern for Liberty fans even though she's gotten much more efficient as a distributor. Pondexter shot 22% in the Liberty's final four games, which obviously makes it harder on the Liberty to score - if nothing else, she's their highest usage player who has been looked to consistently for offense and the team actually flows better with her as a scorer instead of a distributor because she can be so dominant one-on-one.
Key statistical battleground: free throw rate
After all that talk about rebounding and turnovers, the stat that might end up a key factor to victory in a series between defensive-minded teams is the free throw rate - the only thing really consistent about those four regular season meetings is that the winner ended up winning the battle to get to the line in three of four (including both contests after New York's Kara Braxton trade).
On one level this is odd because getting to the line is rarely the most significant factor in a game, much less a series. However, it could be important on both ends of the court in this series: between two fairly aggressive defensive squads, it could end up being a sign of which team managed to defend without fouling. Simultaneously, it could also end up showing which team between a low free throw rate team (New York) and a team that shoots threes relatively often (Indiana) was more aggressive going to the hoop.
I haven't played with Ed Bemiss' simulator much, but let's see how accurate it can be now since we have it. If you check out that particular set of 100 simulated games, the first three are sort of symbolic of what might make this one hard to predict: the Liberty won two of the first three, which is all they need to win a playoff series. But they'll have to win at least one on the road against a team that can stifle even the best offenses at full strength.