Tina Charles, Liberty dominate Fever to open East finals

NEW YORK -- Tina Charles didn't sleep well before the New York Liberty's game on Sunday in Washington, D.C. She was also somewhat anxious before the deciding game of the opening-round series against the Mystics on Tuesday, and then again before the first game Wednesday of the Eastern Conference finals.

Teammate Kiah Stokes, a Liberty rookie, said Charles pretty much never rests. Well, not literally, of course, but in the sense that Charles is ever-vigilant. She is always going over things in her head, considering the possibilities, trying to account for whatever she and her team might face next. She's probably even doing that when she finally does go to sleep. On-court warrior, off-court worrier.

But after Wednesday's sock-it-to-'em 84-67 victory over Indiana at Madison Square Garden, even Charles acknowledged she might relax just a little bit for a day or so. The Fever would prefer she take at least a week off.

Because at the top of the list of everything the Liberty did right against Indiana was Charles' performance: 18 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, two blocked shots. And right behind that was Stokes' 21 points -- on 9-of-11 shooting from the field -- five rebounds and three blocked shots.

Oh, and if that wasn't enough to throw at the Fever, New York guards Epiphanny Prince and Sugar Rodgers both went 4-of-6 from 3-point range and combined for 31 points. It was the kind of game in which the Liberty looked so strong, it actually seemed as if they won by more than 17 points.

The fact they played the night before, securing a tough victory over the Mystics to win that series, could have left the Libs flat as pancakes on Wednesday. Instead, they were energetic and focused and oh-so-ready to protect their home court.

"Wow, I think it surprised everybody," Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said of just how vibrant his team looked Wednesday. "We had a nice performance, but that doesn't mean anything. That's one game. And the next game is going to be harder."

"We laid an egg. Nothing more to say." Indiana's Tamika Catchings

Actually, though, it does mean something, and it might make the next game less difficult. Because the Liberty will go into Indianapolis for Sunday's Game 2 (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET) with a lot of confidence. They didn't just win Wednesday, they made a statement about how good they are.

You might think they already proved that by having the best record in the regular season. But this is something different, and Laimbeer knows it. He has lived it as an NBA player and as a WNBA coach with the former Detroit Shock.

"When you get in a playoff environment, your senses, your awareness, your focus -- it elevates tremendously," Laimbeer said. "I think we're learning about each other at a rapid pace. Everything becomes clearer ... the trust level is enhanced. I think we're growing as a basketball team right now by leaps and bounds."

Indiana coach Stephanie White singled out Charles' performance as particularly crushing for her team, and it was. But the totality of the Liberty's effort really was like an anvil coming down on the Fever. However, White and Fever star Tamika Catchings didn't look or sound angry afterward. Rather, they were blunt and pragmatic.

"We laid an egg," Catchings said. "Nothing more to say. We've got to come out on Sunday, our backs against the wall. But we've been in this situation just like they have, too."

Indeed, the Liberty and the Fever both lost the opening game of their first-round series but won two in a row to advance. The fact Indiana prevailed in the regular-season series 4-1 over New York was not especially meaningful to either side because -- as Laimbeer said -- of how different the postseason can feel.

It definitely didn't feel good for the Fever on Wednesday; only Shenise Johnson scored in double figures (12). And Indiana's defense didn't come close to being a speed bump for the Liberty, who shot 56.5 percent from the field, including 57.1 from 3-point range.

"I think we're learning about each other at a rapid pace. ... I think we're growing as a basketball team right now by leaps and bounds." Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer

Just about everything went right for New York, including having starting center Carolyn Swords back. She missed Tuesday's game with a foot injury but was able to play nearly 15 minutes on Wednesday, going 3-of-3 from the field.

Charles played over 36 minutes on Wednesday. In the two close calls (Games 1 and 3) of the Washington series -- the double-overtime loss and the down-to-the wire win -- Charles played 45-plus minutes and just a few ticks under 40.

And despite the fact she sometimes tosses and turns so much, Charles let Laimbeer know he had nothing to worry about in terms of her fatigue level. She is not acknowledging she has one.

But with playoff averages thus far of 21.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists, Charles certainly is wearing out the opposition.