Dream fend off Fever to take Game 1 of Eastern finals
ATLANTA -- The only thing missing was overtime, which would have been fitting given the quality of Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals. There weren't many fans in Philips Arena on Thursday night -- maybe 1,200 at best -- but those who were there got to see a doozy as the Atlanta Dream beat the Indiana Fever 84-79 in one of the fasted, toughest, well-executed and evenly-matched games of the WNBA season. This was supposed to be a matchup of the walking wounded, a series featuring two teams that have been as banged up as any in the league. Indiana is still missing their star guard, Katie Douglas, who sat on the end of the bench in a dress and heels while recovering from a bulging lumbar disc. On the other bench, Le'coe Willingham was in uniform and could have played but her right knee was not completely healed, and Dream coach Fred Williams said, "I will never sacrifice a player for a win. I just won’t do it." Thankfully for Williams the rest of his team made the Willingham decision moot. The Dream went small, ran the floor and led for most of the night although never by more than five points and usually by two or three.
That was because of the shooting. Indiana shot 48.3 percent from the floor with Tamika Catchings leading the way with 21 points. Karima Christmas, Erlana Larkins and Shavonte Zellous had 15 each while Australian guard Erin Phillips, the most tenacious player on the floor for either team, hit two three-pointers to keep the Fever within striking distance.
But Atlanta was even hotter. The Dream shot 53.3 percent, one of the team's best performances since June, thanks in large part to two players -- Tiffany Hayes, who led all scorers with 23, and Armintie Herrington who had her best game of the year and one of the best of her career.
Harrington scored 16 points to go with seven rebounds, five assists and four steals, but those numbers fail to capture the depth of her contribution. Playing with a bad shoulder that has limited her production for weeks, she had her second-best shooting performance of the year while frustrating Catchings and Christmas on defense.
"Every time we play Indiana they leave me open," Herrington said. "If they're going to leave me open, I'm going to do what I do best, which is put the ball in the hole." Typifying the night and the season, Herrington rolled her ankle in the third quarter. It could have been bad, the kind of injury that has plagued the Dream all year. But she quickly bounced to her feet, pointed a defiant finger at Fred Williams and said, "Don't even think about taking me out of this game." "These injuries, these little nagging problems, it doesn't really mean anything," Herrington said afterward. "When you come into the playoffs you play with all heart, you give your team everything they need. Every time I get a bump, yeah, my arm and shoulder is going to hurt, and I'm going to roll my ankle, but, okay, get over it. We're trying to win a championship." This was one of the first times since early summer that the Dream looked like a legitimate championship team, even with their dominating center, Erika DeSouza, playing less than three full quarters and scoring only 10 points.
"They went small and they're fast when they go small," said Fever coach Lin Dunn. "I think we probably did as good a job as we could on Angel (McCoughtry, who had 18 points and five assists), but we certainly didn't go a good job on Armintie and Hayes. They hurt us." The difference was Indiana's 16 turnovers. Atlanta swarmed the ball defensively in transition while only turning it over 11 times. In the fourth quarter the Dream had no turnovers while forcing the Fever to cough it up on four occasions. "It was a like a chess match for most the game," Williams said, although no one who saw the physicality of this one would have equated it with chess. “We had to adjust to what they did and I think they did the same on the other end." Then with a smile and a slight nod of satisfaction, Williams said, "It was a good game for television and fans of women’s basketball around the country."
On that point, everyone who saw it would have to agree.