(1) Indiana Fever vs. (3) Atlanta Dream
The Eastern Conference finals will be a matchup between the team with the conference's best overall record and the team that has had the best record over the last month.
Indiana eliminated New York in gritty fashion Monday night to reach the Eastern Conference finals; the last time the Fever reached the East finals was 2009, when they made it to the WNBA Finals. Atlanta, which has won nine of its last 10 games, pulled off a first-round sweep of Connecticut in impressive fashion and moves on to the conference finals for the second year in a row.
On paper, the Dream look like the favorites, even though the Fever hold the home-court advantage. Atlanta didn't need to push to a third game to get through the first round, so it will be rested. And Atlanta defeated Indiana in all four of their matchups this season, the last two games by a total of seven points.
But the Fever won their first-round series against New York with a heavy dose of intangibles. Despite having several key players nursing injuries and being outrebounded in each game, Indiana won with hustle play on the defensive end and by the will of superstar Tamika Catchings, who finished the elimination game with 17 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Atlanta's series-clinching win against Connecticut was a come-from-behind victory in the final quarter. What made the Dream's success more impressive was that star Angel McCoughtry wasn't dominating the scoring. She finished with 28 points in the two games combined, and yet Atlanta found a way to win.
Shutting down McCoughtry will be the focal point of Indiana's game plan, as well.
More important, perhaps, will be keeping the Dream's fast-break game in check because the Dream never have been a one-woman team. And the Fever will need to rebound better than they did against New York.
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While Atlanta swept the regular-season series against Indiana (4-0), the games weren't blowouts. The Dream won the last three games by a total of 13 points. Rebounding will be important -- as it always is when Atlanta plays. The Dream want to get out in transition and score easy buckets. They are the top offensive rebounding team in the league and second only to Minnesota in total rebounds per game. Much like Phoenix out west, Atlanta wants to run and get as many possessions as possible. Getting rebounds and slowing down Atlanta rests on the shoulders of Indiana's Tangela Smith, Tammy Sutton-Brown and Catchings. The Fever also need Catchings and Katie Douglas to get a lot of touches offensively. Douglas averaged 22 points in three games against New York and will have to continue to produce offensively. This series will not be a defensive battle.
Mechelle Voepel: Fever in three. There would seem to be every reason to go with the Dream. Atlanta swept the season series with the Fever, and the Dream were the only one of the four conference finalists to sweep their first playoff series. Atlanta, which beat Connecticut 2-0 in the semifinals, could be on a similar postseason roll as last year.
So why go with the Fever? Well, I'm just sticking to the hunch -- for what it's worth -- that I've had since the start of the season. The Fever don't necessarily look overpowering, but they are relentless. Douglas was not only a consistent offensive threat in the first round but also more than held her own defensively against a quicker guard, New York's Cappie Pondexter, during Game 3.
The Fever's inside game will be tested by the Dream, and McCoughtry will do her damage. Ultimately, maybe it simply comes down to believing Douglas and Catchings can lead Indy into the Finals again on force of will.
Michelle Smith: Fever in three. Catchings will deliver another trip to the Finals for Indiana in what will be a nail-biting, thrilling three-game series.
Pat Borzi: Dream in three: Against the Liberty, Douglas did what your best player is supposed to do in the playoffs -- excel on both ends of the court. But Atlanta is rolling at the right time (9-2 since Aug. 21), and its aggressive fourth-quarter defense was the difference in both games against Connecticut. Defense will decide this series, too.
Meri-Jo Borzilleri: Dream in three. The Dream were impressive in a two-game sweep of Connecticut, using their trademark running style for the Game 1 win and adjusting when Connecticut tried to push them around in Game 2. Indiana showed grit in outlasting New York in three. Douglas, the playoff's leading scorer (22 ppg), has made up for the on-again, off-again Catchings. When Atlanta's star McCoughtry is drawing double-teams, the Dream have others who pitch in.