The story of Indiana Fever forward Erlana Larkins, as already documented by espnW's Mechelle Voepel, simply isn't going to get old before the end of the 2012 WNBA Finals and will quite honestly be worthy of picking up again when the 2013 WNBA season picks up.
Here's a player who had to prove she could rebound just to earn a paycheck in the WNBA, worked her way into the starting lineup of the Eastern Conference's representative in the Finals, and wasn't merely a contributor to the Fever's 76-70 win over the Minnesota Lynx in Game One but tied for the second-most rebounds in WNBA Finals history with 15 last night.
It got mention in passing during the ESPN highlight package and Voepel's Game One recap certainly does the performance justice so I would leave it alone if not for one more significant factoid: Larkins' 10 second half rebounds tied Tari Phillips (2000) and Sancho Lyttle (2010) for the WNBA Finals record for total rebounds in one half.
Fever statistical MVP: Larkins has one of the best rebounding performances in Finals history
As it turns out, Larkins' name will now be all over the WNBA Finals rebounding record books - in addition to the two aforementioned records her seven offensive rebounds in the game and her four offensive rebounds in the third quarter each tied for second all-time. But it's the timing of those records attained in the second half that were most significant.
Yet rebounding wasn't Larkins' contribution - the fact that she had only one turnover after leading the team in turnover percentage during the first two rounds of the WNBA Playoffs is actually significant as well. And that's to say nothing of the 16 points she had, which matched a season-high included a couple of smart cuts to the basket against a surprisingly disoriented Lynx defenders on a couple of plays.
Larkins was unquestionably the story of the game last night, even amid the top storylines of the Fever stealing away home court advantage without injured guard Katie Douglas and forward Tamika Catchings moving one step forward to winning that elusive first title.
And her record-tying individual performance in the second half tells an important narrative of this game as well.
On the strength of Larkins' big rebounding performance, the Fever actually managed to grab more total rebounds the Lynx in the second half by a small margin, beating them 22-21. And those four offensive boards in the third quarter helped contribute to a 7-2 advantage in second chance points for the Fever, which was huge just in keeping the Fever in the game as the Lynx went on a run to take a two point lead into the fourth quarter.
That's significant because heading into halftime it was quite obvious that the Fever had to do something about Minnesota's rebounding: they were getting killed 17-8 on the boards and the Lynx converted their 8 first half offensive rebounds into 13 points. While the final box score reflects that huge first half margin, the Fever's renewed vigor on the boards in the second half helped them overcome their 33.33% shooting in the second half and at least keep the Lynx from making up for their own 28.6% shooting with a bunch of second chance points.
This has essentially been the story of the playoffs for the Fever, with arguably the best comeback player story in the league this year (in a season that featured a few good ones) at the center of it. As Dunn said prior to Game One, the Fever are here because they've found a way to manufacture rebounding after a season of having some of the lowest rebounding percentages in the Eastern Conference. But it's reasonable to assume that the Lynx will not consistently lose the rebounding battle this series, even for a half at a time. So if you're looking for reasons why the Fever's win might be something they can repeat rather than an opening game fluke, look no further than what Catchings brings to the floor.
Key player: Tamika Catchings finds other ways to contribute on poor shooting night
Although Catchings wasn't at all efficient from the field last night - she shot 6-for-20 from the field and took a season-high 10 3-point attempts, of which she made just 2 - she does so many other things on the court that she makes her presence felt.
While Larkins was dominating the boards at record-setting rates, Catchings had game-highs of four blocks and three steals to go along with just another outing of defending anyone on the court that needed defending in a given situation. Catchings is so versatile that you cannot shut her down; the only thing that appears to be in an opponents' control over the last three seasons - and even if you don't think she should have won the MVP in each of those three years, there's still a strong argument that she has been the MVP over that span in its entirety - is mitigating the damage she'll actually do on the scoreboard.
There isn't really an "answer" for Catchings; opponents really just have to hope they can limit everyone else. A simple summary of this game is that the Lynx weren't able to contain Larkins on the boards, respond to Catchings anywhere else, or stop Phillips or point guard Briann January from hurting them in various ways.
Key statistic: Indiana only turned the ball over 9 times
One of the concerns with Douglas being out had to be the Fever's ball handling - January had five turnovers in Game Three against the Connecticut Sun and the fact is that the Fever simply don't have many efficient ball handlers. Yet last night they had multiple players step up.
January had a game-high 6 assists to go with three turnovers, guard Shavonte Zellous had a team-low 6.7% turnover rate and a team-high 5.2 pure point rating, and Erin Phillips kept her turnovers to a minimum as well while Catchings didn't have one despite being the focal point of the offense. The sum total of that was a 10.59% turnover rate for the Fever as a team, which certainly helped in keeping the Lynx from scoring easy buckets in transition.
Given how the Fever have been playing during the playoffs, their guard play was extremely significant to last night's win, accentuating the point that it was a true team effort for the Fever against a team that has embodied the best pure team basketball over the last two seasons; it was a beautiful blend of pure heart and precision execution that is basketball's unique niche in the sports world.
The Lynx, on the other hand, simply had a night to forget.
Lynx statistical MVP: Seimone Augustus starts hot, cools off
Seimone Augustus is so good when she's hot that it's hard to think that there's anything the defense can do to keep her from scoring; she makes contested long twos off the dribble look like a perfectly acceptable, and even graceful, way to play basketball.
So when she goes 8-for-13 for 22 points over the first three quarters and then suddenly goes 0-for-2 in the fourth it's easy to write that off as a fluke - defenses simply don't shut down Augustus like that for any consistent length of time on a regular basis. In fairness, she still managed to get herself to the free throw line for four attempts though she only made 1. But Augustus' struggles were compounded by the fact that the entire Lynx team went cold in the fourth: as a team, they shot 2-for-17 in the fourth with their other two Olympics contributing equally to those made field goals.
Minnesota's Olympic trio of Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen combined to shoot 2-for-13 in that quarter, with a number of them being shots they'd normally make (and perhaps we can throw Augustus' 3 missed free throws into that category). The fact is that we can say with some confidence that the Lynx cannot overcome a poor shooting night of that magnitude from their big three: something similar happened in Game Two of their first round series against the Seattle Storm and it cost them the game then too. And similarly, we probably shouldn't expect that kind of thing to happen again.
But the Fever have offered up a wake-up call to both the Lynx and the women's basketball world - if they can rebound with the Lynx even as consistently as they did last night, they'll make this series a lot closer than many observers assumed it would be.