Playoff basketball series are often decided by the chess match between opposing coaches, and the first-round showdown between the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun and the 6-seed Dallas Wings has been no different. After Dallas' 6-foot-7 starting center, Teaira McCowan, struggled to get going in Game 1 -- a 93-68 Sun victory -- Wings coach Vickie Johnson changed things up heading into Game 2, bringing McCowan off the bench and starting Isabelle Harrison in her place.
The decision might have seemed minor -- McCowan still logged 24 minutes -- but it played a pivotal role in the Wings' ability to bounce back to take an 89-79 win and force a winner-take-all Game 3 at their place on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Wings got news late Tuesday that leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale is probable Wednesday after missing the past six games with an abdominal injury. But how successfully the Sun can counter Johnson's move and ensure McCowan can't repeat her Game 2 success -- and how quickly McCowan and the Wings respond to that -- remains a deciding factor in determining which team advances to the WNBA semifinals next week.
McCowan's emergence -- in her first season with the Wings after being traded by the Indiana Fever this past offseason -- was a massive part of Dallas' surge down the stretch of the regular season. Since being inserted into the starting lineup after the All-Star break, the former Mississippi State star averaged 16.2 points and 10.0 rebounds in 26.5 minutes per game to close the regular season; those marks were 7.6/5.1/13.9 in her 20 prior appearances this season. Additionally, the 9.2-point differential per 100 possessions in Dallas' net rating with McCowan on the floor versus on the bench was the second-best mark for any Wings player, behind Allisha Gray's 14.1.
The Wings went 8-5 following McCowan's insertion into the starting lineup, including 6-2 heading into the playoffs, and McCowan took home the first Player of the Month Award of her career in August.
But in Game 1, she was largely neutralized, part of the Sun's strategy to contain McCowan, Gray and Marina Mabrey.
With reigning MVP and perennial All-Defensive Team selection Jonquel Jones matched up against her, McCowan had a tough time getting to her usual spots and getting touches. McCowan finished with six field goal attempts (2-for-6 from the field), seven points and five rebounds. Defensively, she was primarily matched up against the uber-physical Swiss Army knife Alyssa Thomas, who could pull McCowan out of the paint and take her off the dribble -- not necessarily McCowan's strong suit.
The Sun finished Game 1 plus-16 in the paint and plus-7 on the glass, and they held the Wings to just seven second-chance points.
"There's no way we can win with Teaira only taking six shots," Johnson said after Game 1. "We've got to pound the ball inside and play inside out."
Johnson approached McCowan between Games 1 and 2 to see how she felt about being brought off the bench. It wasn't that McCowan was being punished or passed over for Harrison, Johnson said. Rather, it had everything to do with matchups.
In addition to starting the 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones, the Sun have been bringing in 6-foot-3 Brionna Jones -- the WNBA's reigning Most Improved Player and a favorite for Sixth Player of the Year -- off the bench.
Jonquel Jones can match McCowan's length and has the edge in physicality. Johnson anticipated putting McCowan up against Brionna Jones would play to the Wings' advantage. And it largely did.
Harrison did her part in matching Jonquel Jones in Game 2, especially early on, while Kayla Thornton helped slow down Thomas. Then McCowan and Brionna Jones both checked in at the 4:35 mark of the first quarter and were matched up against each other the rest of the contest. Against a smaller and less mobile defender -- and with a renewed intention by Dallas to get the ball inside -- McCowan looked much more comfortable operating in the paint, finishing with 17 points (second best on the team) on 8-for-13 shooting, while also coming away with 11 rebounds, including eight on the offensive end, and three assists.
"It was really to match B. Jones," Johnson said of the decision to change the starting lineup. "B. Jones came in, [McCowan] came in. That was the real focus behind everything. She had to match B. Jones, she's the person who can do it, and they went head-to-head the whole night."
McCowan and the Wings flipped the script from Game 1, beating the Sun on the glass (plus-3), narrowing the gap in points in the paint (minus-2) and doubling them up on second-chance points (23-11).
"It feels great knowing I can be on a team where they can use me in the way I'm supposed to be used," McCowan said, referring to her recent success with Dallas as compared to Indiana. "I feel like just coming in and staying true to my role, that's what I've been doing."
After a putrid first quarter in which the Sun managed just seven points, the Joneses still had solid performances offensively, finishing with 20 points apiece in Game 2. But defense and rebounding are what Connecticut built its success on this season, and the team felt that was lacking most of Game 2, part of what allowed McCowan to go off for a big night.
Brionna Jones admitted that the Sun need to improve their help defense around McCowan and do a better job of keeping her off the glass when the teams meet again Wednesday. If the Sun can successfully contain her and more broadly control the paint and boards, they're much more likely to advance to the semifinals for the fourth straight year.
And if Dallas is able to break through with the upset -- and secure the franchise's best playoff run since it was located in Detroit -- it'll no doubt be because of the work of McCowan and Dallas' other bigs in winning that battle.
"McCowan is so big to move that you've got to do your work early," Jonquel Jones said. "And once she gets in that position, the most you can do is just try to tip it out. We just have to be more proactive and do our work early."