With Atlanta Dream center Erika de Souza with the Brazilian National Team for the FIBA World Championships and the possibility that Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings will be out, it’s nearly impossible to predict how Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals will turn out.
Even if we went over Game 2 with a fine tooth comb and literally subtracted what Catchings brought to the floor, we’d be left with the problem of home court advantage – the Fever had the fourth best home court record during the regular season and have played markedly better at home during the 2011 post-season despite getting swept by the Dream at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Nevertheless, the absences do leave a few known unknowns based on how the teams will adapt their rotation in turn their style of play to respond to their abnormal situations. So a good starting place remains the first round previews for each team (here and here) that detailed strengths and weaknesses and trying to figure out what exactly each team has to make up for.
Key statistic: Who will win the turnover battle?
Although de Souza’s absence leaves an obvious rebounding void for the Dream, that’s neither something they have a problem replacing nor what they’ve relied upon to win games this season; the Dream’s fast-paced style is predicated on turnovers and that was particularly true in the second half of their season when they caught fire.
In this series, we’ve seen the impact of turnovers right from the beginning of each game with the Dream using fast breaks to win get easy layups in transition. More of that would be good for them as they’re not a particularly strong half court team.
We can assume with the Dream’s personnel that they will get turnovers – Sancho Lyttle, Angel McCoughtry, and Armintie Price are among the league’s best at accumulating steals (by percentage) and Lindsey Harding’s quickness at the point can affect the decision making of opposing point guards.
The fact that the Dream don’t rely on rebounding as much as some might have assumed is what made coach Marynell Meadors’ decision to play small ball in de Souza’s absence a smart move.
Key player: How do the Dream fill the void left by de Souza?
Strictly by the numbers, inserting Castro Marques into the lineup was a high risk, high reward move. Castro Marques only made them quicker in transition and with the way they create turnovers in bunches it was nearly impossible for the Fever to keep up. But the bigger concern in de Souza’s absence was actually the impact on their shooting efficiency.
The Dream’s 48.13% effective field goal percentage over the final 19 games of their regular season was about average, primarily because they were the league’s worst three point shooting team*. Part of what made that work is having so many players that are outstanding in both driving to the basket and getting to the free throw line. The other part of that was having a post threat like de Souza, who wasn’t their most efficient scorer (her true shooting percentage of 51.47% was fifth on the team, not counting Shalee Lehning) but was a player whose ability to score was important as the team’s highest usage post player. Aside from not replacing that post presence for a team that already lacks a three point attack, Castro Marques was their least efficient scorer during the regular season by far (a team-low 42.28% TS%, due in large part to shooting a team-high 80 threes at 21.25%).
Of course, Castro Marques’ performance made Meadors’ look like a genius in scoring 30 points on 13-for-22 shooting. But in being a season-high – and a well above average shooting performance – it’s not far-fetched to suggest that her performance in Game 2 was an anomaly and not likely to be repeated. So for the sake of argument, how do they win on the road if Castro Marques performs closer to average?
Maybe they could get more from Harding, but the team is noticeably better when she’s more of a distributor than scorer and she played the role of distributor just fine in Game 2. Otherwise, as hard as it was to predict Castro Marques’ outburst, it’s harder to guess who might step up again as they were playing with an unconventional rotation that the Fever had no way to prepare for.
So that leaves us with the obvious: create more turnovers.
Key player: How might the Fever fill the void left by a potential Catchings absence?
For all of the things that Tamika Catchings brings to the court, the biggest loss against a smaller, quicker Dream team might be her ball handling efficiency.
While the Fever are adept at forcing turnovers in their own right with Catchings being a primary contributor, Catchings also turned the ball over the at a team low rate of 11.34% of her touches this season. Considering that she played a team-high 31.52 minutes per game, that’s a huge loss, especially going up against the Dream. So how do the Fever counter a smaller Dream team with Catchings out?
Well first, we saw that trying to go big on the Dream simply won’t work: there were almost always two mismatches per possession, not the lest of which was Angel McCoughtry at the four spot with Tangela Smith attempting to guard her. So given that they need to stop the Dream in transition to win, matching their small ball is logical.
So that leaves guards as the choice and with 11-player roaters and Briann January out, that really means a choice between rookie Jeannette Pohlen and Shavonte Zealous – 5’2″ Shannon Bobbitt would add another defensive challenge on the court that likely isn’t in the Fever’s best interest. Neither player has seen a whole lot of minutes this season, but throwing Pohlen into the fire could make a bit more sense, in the abstract at least
What Pohlen brings to the floor is a (marginally) more efficient ball handler and by far the team’s most efficient shooter. Although she’s a low usage player, that actually works well in this scenario – having a player who can spread the court and minimize turnovers, but also play within her role is actually not a bad idea. The problem is that they need someone to actually create scoring opportunities in Catchings’ absence and if their offensive display in Game 2 is any indication, they absolutely cannot win without someone who can do something if Douglas continues to assume point guard duties more often than normal.
So that’s where Zellous comes in – she’s quicker, above nearly invisible usage-wise, and among the best in the league over the last three years in her career at getting to the free throw line. But that still leaves another problem: they’d still have a post player guarding McCoughtry in the starting lineup without Catchings available to slide to “four” if necessary.
A double switch to go small with the Dream – Pohlen and Zellous for Catchings and Smith – would be an option. Maybe Bobbitt comes in moving Douglas to “four”. But you get the point: even with the Dream playing shorthanded, the Fever don’t match up with them well for an entirely different reason than normal, as defined by the regular season.
While commentators will harp on Catchings’ scoring, in this particular situation her defense – even at less than 100% – and ability to handle the ball in big minutes without creating turnovers is what could make the bigger impact. If the Dream play as well as they did in Game 2, they pose a serious match up problem and give their uptempo style an advantage.
A 9-v-9 battle
With both teams possibly playing shorthanded, Game 3 could ultimately be a test of coaching and depth, unfortunate as the circumstances might be – a winner-take-all coaching chess match in which role players might end up being the difference between competing for the 2011 title and heading back to Europe to actually make some money.
You could just throw out all the quantifiable questions and boil it down to one very simple determining factor: which team wants it more and who is ready to lead their team in the process of transforming desire into performance?
*In pointing out that the Dream were the worst three point shooting team, it must also be mentioned that their 11% three point rate over the course of the season mitigated the effect of that and actually makes their run even more amazing.