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