The Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever are without question two of the most battle-tested teams in the league when it comes to playoff experience, even if that's mitigated due to the absence of key veterans for each team.
Of course, the absence of key players has been a running them for the Eastern Conference champs of late, albeit to differing degrees.
Among the things that makes their run of dominance a particularly remarkable feat is when you consider that both have had to make lineup adjustments during the playoffs during their last runs to the WNBA Finals. In 2011, the Dream won key games without Erika de Souza and Angel McCoughtry. Last season, the Fever won the Finals with Katie Douglas injured and playing an undersized small ball rotation for most of the playoffs. They're not solely winning by just throwing dominant players on the floor and rolling a ball out - they've maximized their talents in ways that other teams simply haven't.
They have not only have they been two of the most successful teams in the East for five seasons running but also proven to be by far the most resilient and capable of rising to the occasion when adversity hits hardest.
"One thing that immediately comes into my mind is they're without Sancho Lyttle and we're without Katie Douglas," Fever coach Lin Dunn said when asked about how this series differs from their past meetings in the playoffs during a media teleconference yesterday. "I believe the last times we've played both of those two key players have been available, so it makes it a little different matchup. We're without a great scorer, and they're without a great scorer and a great player. Other people have to step up for them. Other people have to step up for us. Other than that, we're pretty much the same. We're a year older, year wiser. They're a year older and year wiser."
Yet an equally interesting similarity for this series is that these teams both have demonstrated a security in their identities that requires an acceptance of a glaring flaw: both were less efficient shooting teams than their opponents this season and the Dream's differential got worse over the second half of the season. Although the Fever have seemingly caught fire in the playoffs once again, both teams' identities are grounded in their ability to defend and take away opponents' strengths despite glaring offensive deficiencies.
Of course, whatever MVP voters say, Tamika Catchings and Angel McCoughtry are quite clearly two of the best all-around players to play in the league over the last five years - there are few players capable of imposing their will on a game in quite the way those two do. But there are still more subtle keys to determining the outcome of this series.
Key statistical battleground: Turnover margin
Not only does the success of both teams usually begin with talk about defense, but also talk of forcing turnovers.Yet they do it in slightly different ways.
The Fever were one of the slowest paced teams in the league this season and force turnovers primarily with disciplined rotations and pure effort, led by star Tamika Catchings. The Fever are adept at forcing opponents into poor decisions simply by putting them in uncomfortable positions. In contrast, the Dream were the fastest-paced team in the league and their defensive style begins with using their athleticism on the perimeter to pressure ball handlers and get into passing lanes.
So as much as the fact of forcing turnovers matters, the pace of the game will definitely matter for this series: turnovers fuel the Dream's fast break, which helps them leverage their athleticism and avoid halfcourt situations where their inability to make threes makes them easier to defend.
"I think when you look at the backcourts for both teams, they have the faster back court, and they need to use that to their advantage," said analyst LaChina Robinson during a media teleconference yesterday when asked to list some advantages for the Atlanta Dream.
The Fever execute well enough to play a slower pace, but a lot of that success will depend on their ability to fight through the Dream's aggressive pressure to run their offense. That puts a spotlight on point guard Briann January.
Fever key player: Briann January's scoring at point guard
The point guard battle is one the Fever should expect to win in this series. Yet it's not exactly controversial to suggest that January struggled for most of the 2013 regular season - she was neither efficient as a distributor or scorer.
As a distributor, January finished the 2013 regular season with a pure point rating of 0.0 as a rather turnover-prone point guard; it's no coincidence that she had a combined 10 assists and 4 turnovers in their first round domination of the Chicago Sky.
"If there was one stat that I would say you need to keep your eyes on it would be assists - assists for both teams," Robinson said. "Indiana, because if they're driving and kicking for three, they're going to get assists, but Atlanta because they like to get out in the open court and get assists, and they need that transition offense."
For January, her ability to set up her teammates efficiently and disrupt Atlanta's young guards will be significant. Yet her scoring might be even more important than her passing.
Despite having the third-highest usage rate on the team (21.2%) behind Catchings (28.5%) and 2013 Most Improved Player Shavonte Zellous (23.8%), January was not at all an efficient scorer (45.2% true shooting percentage). However, Catchings mentioned during yesterday's teleconference that January had something of a turning point during their last regular season game against the Chicago Sky when she scored a season-high 23 points on her way to a hot September leading into the playoffs: January averaged 15 points on 41.81% (23-for-55) shooting from the field in September, well above her scoring efficiency and production for the season.
"Her defensive intensity is always there, but I think from her offensive standpoint, what we've needed from her as a team is just to be able to be confident in her scoring ability," said Catchings during the teleconference. "Being able to get the ball up the floor, being able to just help everybody else out on the court offensively and defensively. During the first series of Chicago I felt like she did a good job just dictating the offense and dictating our team."
To Catchings' point, January's level of aggression in getting into the paint and creating shots might be more important than her efficiency just in terms of putting pressure on the Dream's point guards.
Dream key player: Erika de Souza's rebounding
On the interior, the Fever owned the boards against the Sky. But 6-foot-5 center Erika de Souza presents a slightly more daunting challenge just in the way she plays.
"De Souza is one of the premier centers in the world," Dunn said. "She's a tremendous basketball player. She's a veteran. She's got playoff experience. She's been in the Finals. She's an Olympian. She's big, strong, and physical. In a lot of ways, she's like Fowles but she's a little more mature in her body and just in the experiences she's had. She presents a real challenge for us. We'll think about her just like we did Fowles. She can go off and singlehandedly beat you."
During the Dream's first round victory over the Washington Mystics, de Souza's offensive rebounding was a major difference between the Dream's Game 1 loss and their wins in Games 2 & 3: keeping things simple, de Souza had just 3 offensive rebounds in Game 1 and averaged 6.5 in the final two games.
Although the Dream haven't been the dominant rebounding team of the past this season, they have
Prediction: Fever, 2-1
The recent run of success for both of these teams makes this series very difficult to predict - both of these teams have proven capable of generating totally unforeseeable playoff magic. And that playoff resilience they've demonstrated in the past makes the fact that the Dream won the season series 3-1 is almost entirely irrelevant to the outcome of this series - both Dunn and McCoughtry acknowledged that during the teleconference.
"It's honestly like a new season," McCoughtry said when asked about what the Dream could take from the season series. "It really doesn't matter about that because they're a different team and we're going to be a different team."
But what favors the Fever, even with Katie Douglas remaining out, is that they're able to win without fast break points by executing in the halfcourt when things get tight. And if Indiana continues their hot 3-point shooting - their hot shooting during the Chicago series is probably a more accurate reflection of their ability than their regular season numbers, sample size notwithstanding - they'll have an offensive advantage that Atlanta will have a hard time keeping up with.
For more on the Dream and the Fever's path to this point, check out our Eastern Conference Finals storystream.