The WNBA's Eastern Conference finals are a Midwest matchup between two hungry teams on the opposite ends of the experience spectrum. Indiana has done this before -- plenty of times, in fact. The Sky have never won a WNBA playoff series. Heck, before last year, they'd never been to the playoffs. But this series, which begins Saturday in Indianapolis, will match two of the league's brightest stars in Tamika Catchings and Elena Delle Donne; it should be a compelling matchup.
Here are five questions about the Eastern Conference finals:
1. Is Tamika Catchings still up to carrying a team to a title?
If anyone could do it, it would be the WNBA's all-time postseason scoring and rebounding leader. Catchings averaged 24 points and 10.5 rebounds in Indiana's first-round win over Washington and finally seems to be hitting her stride after missing the first 17 games of the Fever's season with a back injury.
The 35-year-old star hit a bit of a lull in late July and early August but came up big down the stretch of the regular season to allow the Fever to secure the No. 2 spot in the East -- and as it turned out, home-court advantage in this series. In Indiana's past five games, Catchings is averaging 23.4 points, and she's hit 28 of her past 29 attempts from the free throw line. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against Washington, she shot just 4 of 15 from the floor, but went 14-of-14 from the stripe to finish with 22 points and collected seven steals. She can hurt a team from anywhere.
Catchings will draw the defensive assignment on Delle Donne much of the time. One more thing to do, if anyone can do it all.
2. How much does Elena Delle Donne have to do for Chicago?
The Sky's second-year star had to do a whole lot to get her team to its first conference finals series, scoring 34 points (17 in the fourth quarter) and rallying her team from a 17-point deficit with a little more than eight minutes to go to stun the Atlanta Dream in Game 3 on Tuesday night. But can Chicago reasonably rely on that kind of production?
As fabulous as Delle Donne is, she needs help. And the Sky need to not dig themselves into such a big hole. The greatest comeback in WNBA playoff history is a rare thing. The later in the playoffs you go, the less you can get away with that.
3. How much of a Lin Dunn factor is there for the Fever?
The Fever are a team of veteran players -- and a few of them have won a championship together at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They want to win, because it's what they do. But sending head coach Lin Dunn into retirement with one last gift, a championship trophy, would suit them fine. Just don't expect it to be a big source of motivation. As point guard Briann January said, "We don't need any more motivation than going out and winning a championship."
4. Who are the X factors in this series?
The Sky know what they should get from Delle Donne. The difference between winning and losing will likely lie in the performances of shooting guard Epiphanny Prince and center Sylvia Fowles. Prince scored just four points on 2-of-10 shooting in Game 3 vs. Atlanta, breaking a run of seven straight games in double figures. She needs to score to take the defensive focus off of Delle Donne. Fowles missed 13 games to start the season and hasn't been the same scoring force as in the past. The Sky simply don't get her the ball as much as they used to, but her contributions on the defensive boards will be crucial.
For the Fever, Shavonte Zellous, who came up so big in the 2012 title run, needs to play at her best again. Erlana Larkins will have to do good defensive work on Fowles and likely some on Delle Donne as well, while also working to get her points in the paint.
5. Does experience count?
The Fever have made seven trips to the conference finals in the past 10 years, including four in a row, and reached two WNBA Finals. Chicago had never made it out of the first round of the playoffs before Tuesday night's dramatic win.
The Fever have had the benefit of rest after sweeping Washington in their first-round series. The Sky will have a little less after going to the limit with the Dream.
In the conference finals, it stands to reason that Indiana's veteran lineup will be better prepared for the swings of the game and the pressure moments. The Fever know how to push tempo and get to the basket. They hit free throws. They do the things that get you far in the postseason. Do we know that we can say that about the Sky at this point?