- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Every season, with all the regularity of the national anthem before the game, the same cry comes echoing out of each and every locker room in the league.
"We just want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season."
It might even be true most of the time, but what goes unsaid is that all that really matters in the playoffs is whether you play better than the team in front of you.
Neither the Connecticut Sun nor the Indiana Fever played their best basketball Thursday in Game 1 of their playoff series. But after holding on for a 93-88 win in the first triple-overtime game in WNBA playoff history, it's unlikely the Sun would spend much time debating whether it was their most aesthetically pleasing game, even if they had the time to sit around for peer review rather than get on a plane for Game 2 in Indiana on Saturday (NBA TV, 4 p.m. ET).
For all the shooting heroics from Indiana's Anna DeForge, for all the toughness on display from both Tamika Catchings and Asjha Jones as they put physical discomfort aside for a few hours, the image of the night might have been Katie Douglas smiling in a sardonic display of self-loathing before flinging her headband to the court after missing an open 3-pointer that would have won the game at the end of the second overtime.
Because for all her struggles from the floor, it was Douglas pulling down an offensive rebound with her team down five in the third overtime, leading eventually to two free throws from Nykesha Sales that launched the Sun on a 10-0 run to end the game. And it was Douglas coming up with eight steals, eight rebounds and four assists to offset a dismal 4-for-21 shooting night. Just as Lindsay Whalen found a way to bounce back from a slow start and finished with 10 assists, Jones played through her ankle sprain to post a double-double, Sales came up with big shots at the end and center Margo Dydek changed shots on defense.
The Sun weren't perfect on Thursday night, at times doing their best to give the game away. But in the end, they were better for one night than the other team on the court.
And that, more than playing the perfect game, is the objective this time of year.
Sometimes numbers make no sense.
Whalen's 3-pointer late in the second overtime gave the Sun a five-point lead and the kind of momentary breathing room they hadn't enjoyed in about 30 minutes of real time. It also tempted fate from a statistical standpoint, considering the Sun were just 3-11 in the regular season when Whalen hit at least one shot from behind the arc.
As adept as any guard in the league at getting to the basket off the dribble and either finishing, drawing fouls or dishing for an assist, Whalen has suffered through a curious free fall as an outside shooter since her days as a deadeye shot at the University of Minnesota. After shooting right around 35 percent from behind the arc in her first two pro seasons, Whalen shot just 13 percent last season and 21 percent this season (aided by that ability to get to the basket, she did hit a career-best 46.8 percent overall from the floor this season).
She was at her best on the drive in Game 1, finishing with 13 points and 10 assists, but the Sun become an even more dangerous team if she knocks down shots from outside. No matter what the numbers say.
Catch and release
DeForge had the biggest shots during Indiana's repeated rallies, but it was a jumper from another player that spoke volumes about the state of Indiana's offense.
Down five with just more than three minutes to play in regulation, Tully Bevilaqua initiated a half-court set by dropping a pass to Tamika Whitmore in the post. Covered by a zone defense that had Dydek providing a sizable help presence in the middle, Whitmore found Ebony Hoffman open near the elbow. Up to that point, as Hoffman took a quick dribble toward the open space in the zone and pulled up with Dydek still looming down low, Indiana's disciplined offense had done everything right to set up a scoring chance.
But it was the next move, as Catchings took a pass from Hoffman and knocked down a long jumper from the corner to convert the chance, that ought to leave the Fever with a sense of optimism, even if DeForge doesn't channel Jimmy Chitwood in Game 2.
Too often when Catchings was out of the lineup for 13 games in the second half of the season, the Fever did their best impression of the kid who takes immaculate notes in school but can't come up with the words to put the memorized facts together on the test. Other than DeForge on certain nights, they didn't have that player who made opposing fans, not to mention players and coaches, wince when eyeing a pass settling into her unguarded hands.
Catchings is far from an automatic two, shooting just 41 percent from the floor on the season and looking rusty in a 5-for-17 performance against the Sun, but the attention she demands, the confidence she displays and the chances she creates when all else grinds to a halt are invaluable to those around her. Indiana can win without DeForge going off for 30, but they can't win the series without Catchings in the middle of things.
Although they certainly wouldn't mind having both for another game.
Conseco Fieldhouse wasn't home to as many magical moments for Reggie Miller as the old Market Square Arena in downtown Indianapolis, but there was definitely a little of No. 31 showing through as DeForge knocked down clutch 3-pointer after clutch 3-pointer to extend Thursday's game well beyond regulation.
The remarkable thing about DeForge's performance is that it wasn't until Aug. 15, when she went off for 29 against the Sun while Catchings was still out, that she hit more than three 3-pointers in a game this season. Her 12 3-pointers in the last four games are four more than any other four-game stretch this season.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
13dBonnie D. Ford