(ATLANTA) - Define a “classic game”. Is it one which goes back-and-forth from beginning tip to final buzzer? Is it defined by step-up performances? Are luck and inexplicable plays factors? Did it leave you in suspense until the final seconds? If there were a checklist, Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals would have filled most of the squares as the Atlanta Dream defeated the visiting Indiana Fever 84-79 in a nationally televised game.
"I thought this was a well-fought game between two great teams going after it,” Atlanta Dream head coach Fred Williams said. “It was a good game for television and fans of women’s basketball around the country.” The Dream and Fever will meet again on Sunday in Indianapolis for Game Two.
“I thought they played with their A game," Indiana head coach Lin Dunn said of the Dream's effort. "I would give us a B or B+. That makes me feel really good about the next game because I can tell you this, we are going to play A.”
Despite the fact that forward Le’coe Willingham was available, Williams started guard Tiffany Hayes and assigned her to Fever forward Tamika Catchings. Oddly enough, she was the only player scoring for Indiana early on and Catchings would finish the quarter with 10 points Williams gave Hayes’s job defending Catchings to Dream guard Armintie Herrington, but it seemed that defense was the second thing on anyone’s mind. Hayes and Herrington finished the quarter with eight points each in a back-and-forth struggle that ended with Atlanta up 27-26 after ten minutes.
It would end up being a great night for Hayes, who finished with 23 points to match her season high.
“I thought she went left all night long,” Dunn said of Hayes. “I don’t feel like we did a good job at defending her dribble drive going left. We know she is left handed. I thought our mental focus when it came to that was not very good. I thought we were too tight. What I like to see Hayes do is pull up and shoot a jumper going right. Force her right, give her space. We got in her grill and she went left and went all the way to the rim.”
“I have to stay aggressive,” Hayes said. “That’s what my team needs me to do. Every time I go up to the hole, Armintie always tells me, just go up to score, don’t look for the foul. I’m thinking that in my head every time I drive, and like she said you can’t worry about injuries right now when you’re trying to win a championship.”
"We certainly didn’t do a good job on Armintie and Hayes,” Dunn said. “They hurt us.”
Instead of the hamburger of a defensive battle, the spectators got the filet mignon of an offensive shootout. Atlanta maintained a narrow lead as both teams swapped baskets – at one time the Dream led by six but a 3-pointer by Hayes was reviewed and changed to a shot clock violation. Both teams were still shooting over 50 percent, and Williams took the opportunity to leave Dream center Erika de Souza on the bench to rest and play a small lineup with point guards Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas on the floor. The Dream held on to a 42-40 lead at halftime.
Williams has used his small lineup – a product of necessity due to injuries – various times throughout the year. Why against Indiana? “It’s just something you see on film,” Williams said. “It’s tendencies of what other teams do against other teams. Indiana did some of that with Chicago some and we had to take some advantage of that in this game early, and that’s why you saw me with the smaller lineup with Angel at the 4 so we can have some better match-ups there, and bring Henry off the bench.”
“They’ve gone small before,” Dunn said. “They’ve never started small, but we expected them to go small at some point. I think that we have to do a better job at exploiting their smallness on the other end. When we tried to do it, that’s when we had some of our turnovers.”
Atlanta and Indiana continued their back and forth in the third quarter. With four minutes left in the quarter, the Dream had four fouls and had given up the bonus to Indiana – but the Dream recovered to answer with a 9-0 run to end the third quarter with a 62-56 lead, at that time their biggest lead of the game.
Of course, the struggle would have to end in spectacular fashion. With the Dream up 81-75, a steal by Dream guard/forward Angel McCoughtry was negated by Dunn calling a time out that reached the referee’s ear first, keeping the ball in Indiana’s hands. The ball would end up in Catchings’s hands, and she was fouled in the act of making a successful three point shot by McCoughtry.
Now down 81-78, Catchings went to the free throw line. She missed the free throw but Fever center Erlana Larkins got the offensive rebound, giving Indiana another go. A 3-pointer by guard Shavonte Zellous failed to fall, McCoughtry got the rebound, and the Fever were forced to foul. McCoughtry hit one out of two to put Atlanta up 82-78 with 16.4 seconds left.
But Tiffany Hayes’s foul on Indiana’s in-bounds attempt gave Indiana an uncontested free throw on the dead ball foul to close the gap to 82-79 – and the Fever had the ball and the potential last shot. Indiana point guard Briann January was forced to take a 2-pointer which didn’t fall with 7.9 seconds left, Herrington got the rebound, and the game was over.
Four starters from each team scored in double figures. On the Dream’s side, Tiffany Hayes led all scorers with 23 points and 3-for-6 3-point shooting. McCoughtry finished with 18 points, Herrington had 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting and Erika de Souza scored 10 points and six rebounds.
Tamika Catchings led Indiana with 21 points. Three other Fever players – Larkins, Zellous, and forward Karima Christmas – scored 15 points each, with Larkins also adding 12 rebounds for a double-double.
The Fever gave up the ball 16 times, and Catchings knew protecting the ball would be a priority in Game 2.
“We are not reacting fast,” Catchings said. “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.”
* With seven defensive boards, Tamika Catchings became the WNBA’s all-time leader in defensive rebounds in the playoffs. She now has 350, surpassing Lisa Leslie’s mark of 344. Catchings now trails Leslie’s playoff record of 471 total rebounds by just 11 rebounds.
Lin Dunn on the differences between Atlanta and Chicago: “I think Atlanta’s quicker. When you look at their perimeter with Thomas, Hayes, Armintie, and Angel – extremely quick perimeter players, much quicker than [Vandersloot], Delle Donne and Prince. And a better defensive team – because Atlanta plays the passing lanes, they’re disruptive, they don’t let you pass the ball wherever you want to. Whereas I thought Chicago’s defense was more positional defense. They allow ball reversal, they just contest the shot.”
Dunn on forward Katie Douglas’s aborted return: “She came back from her ruptured disk and she reinjured her back – it’s a different type of injury. As far as I know, she’s out for the playoffs. I’m not sure exactly how it happened.”
Dunn on Jessica Davenport’s recovery. “She’s recovered from the plate in her leg, but she hasn’t been able to do any running. It’s healed though. It’s a tough injury to come back from . It’s similar to what Kevin Ware had. She has a hot spot, a stress fracture, and if you don’t do something about it, it’s a weakness, it will break. She had a surgery, and it healed.”
Dunn on defensive matching: “Matchups are kind of a fruit basket turnover. We can go smaller, we can go bigger, just like they can. You just adapt. If somebody’s out, somebody else steps in. Do you step in with a Ruth Riley, or do you go small and move Angel to the four? Aneika Henry’s been playing awfully well, I don’t know why they wouldn’t be excited about starting her in there.”
Dunn on rookie Layshia Clarendon: “She’s learning the WNBA game. She’s adjusting to having 49 sets instead of three, a defensive system with defending the two-man game nine ways instead of one. It’s a constant learning process for her – it’s my job to teach her throughout the season.”
“We’ve been pleased though with Layshia. Typical rookie – not strong enough yet to take a hit, but has a great basketball IQ, has a real ability to get to the rim, has a real good feel for the game. So we think she’s going to be a player in this league. But we have to teach her the game.”
Dunn on letting Jessica Breland go: “I’m tired of people saying, ‘why did you let [Breland] go?’ We didn’t have a choice. Of course we would have let a rookie go over what, a three-four year veteran? She was an injury replacement for Katie Douglas, so that’s why we waited as long as we did, trying to make sure that Katie as healthy. Both of her doctors assured us that she was healthy. She was doing great, ready to play. And so we cut Breland.”
Dunn on Indiana’s basic problem in Game One: "We did not do a good job of containing the dribble. It’s one thing to make someone pull up shooting jump shots; it’s another thing to let them get all the way to the rim, so we have to do a better job at dribble drive penetration.”
Fred Williams on the status of Le'coe Willingham: "Willingham is available. It's day-to-day for her. She was available tonight. We could have played her, but we want to make sure that she has the right brace - we're still trying to check that out in practice. I've never sacrificed a player for a victory."
Armintie Herrington on her left shoulder injury: “These injuries, these little nagging problems, it doesn’t mean anything. When you come into the playoffs, you play with all heart, and you give your team everything you need. Everytime I get bumped, yeah, my shoulder’s going to hurt, I’m going to roll my ankle, I’m going to get hit, okay get over it. We’re trying to win a championship.”