A game with meaning, played straight
WHITE PLAINS, NY — In a game that had organizational value to both the Indiana Fever and the New York Liberty, but only if they lost, both teams played to win Friday night in Westchester.
Not only were there no suspicious scratches, the Fever enjoyed the return of Natalie Achonwa. Tina Charles played, too, after missing a game last week to rest. It all meant that a pair of promising teams, but teams who each entered the night with a shot at the pole position in the upcoming WNBA draft lottery, were at essentially full strength, give or take an important guard like Asia Durr or Shenise Johnson.
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By winning, 86-81, the Indiana Fever lost any chance of securing the best lottery odds. The New York Liberty will now have a 44.2% chance of winning the top pick in the 2019 draft. Indiana has a 27.6 percent chance.
Pokey Chatman wasn’t sweating it.
“You play to win the game. Everybody will talk about the odds, Monday morning quarterbacks. I had some pretty good odds last year, how did that work out for me — in terms of the number. I got number three, but I got Big T, so I’m not complaining. But the big message is, you’ve got to be where your feet are.”
Both coaches had explained prior to the game that seeing further development trumped an altering of the percentages, and that held form, with Katie Smith going to young Han Xu early on against Teaira McCowan, a matchup she told reporters she purposefully avoided when these two played in Westchester back in the Liberty’s home opener. And Chatman continued utilizing her young core, giving Kelsey Mitchell ample time, if not the start, to continue bonding with fellow lottery pick McCowan.
The two even sat together in the waning minutes of pregame, expressing optimism about the future of the team as the final days of 2019 approach.
“Our season has been so up and down,” Mitchell said pregame. “But you stay to the grind, you stay committed, because we know we want to be the best.”
And in Chatman’s mind, the defensive effort in the fourth quarter is a building block no less than a top overall pick would be.
“They had so much momentum going into the half, third quarter they had 25,” Chatman said following the game. “So we said that’s not going to get it done, let’s try and hold them to 14, and then we held them to 7.”
In the first half, the Fever looked like the team Chatman has wanted them to be offensively all season, with 15 assists on 17 field goals and 44% shooting from three, playing at a fast pace. The Liberty, too, managed to move the ball sufficiently to limit the impact of 6’7 McCowan in the lane, and shot 53.8 percent from the field in the first half, leading 49-43.
That… did not last. McCowan became a force, leading to tough shots for the Liberty and a lightning-quick erasing of what had ballooned to a 13-point Liberty lead. By 5:26 left in the third, Indiana had taken the lead, 58-57.
To New York’s credit, the Liberty countered out of the timeout with a 9-0 run of their own, forcing Indiana to call a timeout of its own, with Chatman earning a technical foul for something she said in the general direction of an official before turning back toward her bench.
Chatman insisted she hadn’t said anything tech-worthy following the game, adding, “I like keeping my money!”
Over the past five games, it has been the Liberty offense that has elevated over the team’s season numbers, while Indiana’s defense has been the best leading indicator of progress for the Fever.
That defense really came to define the fourth quarter, with Indiana holding the Liberty to just seven points through the first seven-plus minutes of the period. McCowan reached double figures in both points and rebounds, the Liberty simply couldn’t finish layups, and a Candice Dupree baseline jumper gave Indiana the lead with around 90 seconds left, while a drive to the hoop by Kelsey Mitchell padded the lead to 84-81 with 53.2 seconds left.
“We kind of weathered the storm and stayed poised,” Mitchell said. “We knew they were going to go on a run, they are a really good team with veteran and top-notch players.”
In typical fashion, while Tina Charles finished with a double-double, and Marine Johannès added plenty of offense both by scoring 15 and added seven assists, but there just wasn’t enough offense around her when this game was won or lost, while Bria Hartley’s combination of late turnovers and offensive foul cost New York critical possessions.
Now, a Sabrina Ionescu addition to that offense just got likelier.
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