Both the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever have overcome similar forms of adversity to get to this point: missing their best player for extended periods of time.
The Fever weathered the storm for the first half of the season while do-it-all forward Tamika Catchings worked back to health. Briann January stepped up and saw her first All-Star appearance while Shavonte Zellous proved to be a threat off the bounce. Erlana Larkins drew attention and showed aggression in the paint. Through it all, the team's defense remained it's calling card.
Meanwhile, the Sky came into the 2014 playoffs as one of the WNBA's biggest question marks, having dealt with injuries to most of their rotation at various points in the season. One of the most talented teams on paper, the Sky struggled early on as Epiphanny Prince, Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne, Jessica Breland and Courtney Vandersloot (the team's likely starting five coming into the season) missed time due to injuries/health issues or vacation time for Prince. The Sky were able to get Delle Donne back down the stretch to sneak into the playoffs ahead of the New York Liberty.
That brings us to the Eastern Conference Finals, a rematch of a first round matchup that didn't go well for the Sky last season. Have things changed enough to expect a different outcome this season?
Overview: Indiana doesn't score a bunch, but stakes it's claim to relevance by allowing the third fewest points per outing. Same goes for the misses: the Fever were the league's third-worst rebounding team but also allowed the fewest number of opponent rebounds.
Tamika Catchings is an All-World level player and leaves it all on the floor so it's easy to understand why the Fever struggled without her. Now, she's back, and is fresh off a season-finishing player of the month award for July. Plus, Lin Dunn is retiring after this season. Catchings never really needs much motivation but this organization wants to send the fiery Dunn out on top.
Fever MVP: You didn't really think it would be anyone else right? Tamika Catchings has been the face of the Indiana Fever for a long time now. Her health and toughness has been key to the Fever's stretch of 10 consecutive playoff appearances. The supporting cast is composed differently but the motor is in great condition. Catchings' 2014 postseason hasn't been the best (shooting 39% from the floor) but her pure will is exhibited as you skim the rest of her playoff stat lines: 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 4.5 steals to match 96% shooting (23-24) from the free throw line. If they want to be successful, she MUST sustain this level of play, at minimum. Indiana can only go as far as Catchings can carry them and she'll want a return to the promised land, similar to her 2012 season.
Fever X-Factor: Undersized posts with high motors that rebound at a high rate tend to have short shelf-lives in the WNBA as bigs usually struggle the most to develop. Erlana Larkins' lack of elite size as a rebounder has been belabored since she entered the starting lineup for the Fever. Nevertheless, Larkins was a key to the Fever's 2012 title run and has been vital to their sustained rebounding and defensive excellence in 2014. Larkins also leads the team in free throw rate and true shooting percentage, which means that Larkins has proved to be more than just a rebounder for her squad in 2014. Larkins 60% shooting from the floor ranked first in the league during the regular season while she also finished the year fourth in rebounds and third in steals per game.
Overview: The Sky faced the Atlanta Dream in first round and won two games on the road, including coming back from down as many as 20 to win a series-clinching Game 3 in Atlanta. In that game, the Sky scored 30 points in the fourth quarter, including 17 from Delle Donne and were able to steal the road victory as the Dream missed all four free throws in the final 5 minutes, as the Sky closed on a 16-6 run. An unfortunate casualty of that first round series might be Breland, who left Game 1 with an apparent shoulder injury.
For now, that's the most we can say about this team: having missed players for so many games throughout the season, they're still a team that's coming together.
Sky MVP: With two players that are likely to be big factors for Team USA come 2016 and a naturalized Russian point guard, the Sky have a number of options. But, in the end, Elena Delle Donne led this team in scoring in the regular season and they wouldn't be in the Eastern Conference Finals if it weren't for her pure will.
Delle Donne helped the Sky steal game 3 on the road, 81-80, by lighting up the Dream for 34 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter, as they won the franchise's first playoff series. Ironically, next up is the team that ended the Sky's season rather quickly in 2013. Immediately after losing, Delle Donne went straight to head coach Pokey Chatman and said she needed to get stronger as Indiana was really able to rough her up and get her out of her comfort zone. Needless to say, Delle Donne will be zeroed-in and ready for whatever the Fever throw at her.
Sky X-Factor: It came down to the 11th hour of me completing a preview of the Sky without making mention of Sylvia Fowles but I couldn't allow it to happen.
I've given up in my battle to try and convince the Sky to get Fowles double digit shot attempts per night, which in turn would make life easier, but who am I to say people like easy? Fowles is still vital to the Sky's success and while she doesn't put up the dominant numbers one would expect of her, she quietly had a very solid night in the series-clinching win against the Dream, finishing with 13 points and 15 rebounds to go along with 4 steals.
Fowles will have her work cut out for her as Indy's Lin Dunn has clearly defined Krystal Thomas' role as "really big big stopper" and Erlana Larkins is one of the toughest outs there is in the WNBA but overall she still has a significant size and athleticism advantage. Foul trouble will also be key for Big Syl as Indiana boasts two of the top nine offensive rebounders by percentage (Larkins 6, Natasha Howard 9) in the league.
Keys to Success
Fever: The Fever will have to figure out how to put points on the board. They'll make the game ugly and slow the flow down (the Fever finished 11th of 12 teams in pace) but the object of the game is putting the ball in the basket. Catchings has continued as the team's number one option on offense (although somewhat inefficiently) but who can be that consistent number 2 and 3 option for Indiana when they need a basket?
Sky: Chicago will definitely need to push the pace against this Fever team. The Sky don't want to get bogged down into a physical battle with Indiana as they just don't have the bodies ready to play on the bench if someone was to get injured or into foul trouble. The Sky don't pressure the ball exceptionally well but their defensive rotations are very solid and they were the only team to finish within shouting distance of the Phoenix Mercury in terms of for team blocks so the opportunity for those transition opportunities is there.
Key matchup: If not for the question of Breland's health, this is where her name would come up but instead, the point guard battle could define this series. The starting ball-handlers for these two teams couldn't be more different: Briann January is an A+ defender that loves to disrupt the opposing offense and shoot threes. Courtney Vandersloot's finesse game brings back memories of John Stockton as she prefers to slide around screens and use her court savvy and basketball IQ to create advantages. Vandersloot did shoot her highest percentage-to-date (albeit in an injury-shortened season) in terms of season three-point shooting percentage (38%) and that could prove key in providing spacing for her squad.
Series Prediction: Sky def. Fever
Indiana presented major problems for the Sky last season in terms of their physicality and defensive intensity. The Sky have improved and gotten (mostly) healthy while the Fever's roster -- when fully healthy as opposed to last season -- has take a step back in terms of overall talent. The Fever will be playing to extend the retiring Dunn's final season while the Sky will look to extend it's franchises longest season yet, against the team that spoiled it's inaugural trip to the ball.
I've been leaning towards a replay of the 2009 WNBA Finals but the Sky have second life after recovering from what seemed to be a KO punch against Atlanta in the first round. More time for Delle Donne to get healthy means the Sky will fulfill its potential earlier than expected, sending Dunn off in the sunset, 2-1 Sky.
For more analysis and updates of this series, check out our Fever vs. Sky storystream.