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posted: 9/19/2013 10:22 PM

Sky looks to solve Fever in first round

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Whenever I think of the Indiana Fever, the defending WNBA champion, that song from "Sound of Music" pops into my head. It's the one where the nuns in the abbey are dancing around and singing about their fellow nun, the mischievous Maria.

They ask in their sweet, high-pitched singing voices, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"

Good question, and here's a good one I have: (and feel free to sing to the above tune, like I am): "How do you solve a problem like the Fever?"

It's a conundrum, and the Chicago Sky has been trying to solve it for years.

"There's just something about Indiana that we haven't been able to pull it together," Sky 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles told me after a loss to the Fever earlier this season.

Well now, the Sky has just two games, three if necessary, to figure out a way to beat Indiana. The Sky, making its WNBA playoff debut at Allstate Arena (6 p.m. Friday, U Too, NBA TV), is taking on the Fever in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a three-game series that will shift to Indianapolis on Sunday and back to Chicago on Tuesday, if necessary.

In its eight seasons, the Sky is 6-27 against the Fever, which includes a 1-3 mark this season and a staggering 0-5 mark last year.

The Sky, in the midst of a breakout season, sits in first place in the Eastern Conference with victories in season series against other powerful franchises, including Connecticut and Phoenix.

But the Fever remains a sharp thorn in the side of Sky players, coaches and fans. Even in a season for Indiana that has been checkered injuries to key players, including star guard Katie Douglas, who played in only her third game last weekend, the Fever still has the Sky's number.

So what gives? Is there a mental block? Is it a matchup problem with the Fever?

Maybe the basketball gods just like the Fever better.

I know, I'm reaching now. But what else could it be? The Sky is as talented as the Fever, probably more this season, with Fowles having an MVP-caliber campaign and 6-foot-5 rookie Elena Delle Donne taking the WNBA by storm.

And yet, the wins against Indiana just aren't there. The Sky's frustration was obvious again this season.

"We played soft," Sky coach Pokey Chatman told me through gritted teeth after a recent loss to the Fever. "They are a very good team and very good on defense. They make good switches and reads. They are aggressive. You can't bend down for the 50-50 balls, you've got to dive on them like they do.

"We can't wait until late to match the intensity of a team like Indiana. They were more physical than us. They were tougher than us."

Getting tough with the Sky has worked beautifully for the Fever. Indiana coach Lin Dunn has gotten her players to buy into a gritty, bruising, relentless mentality, especially on the defensive end.

Led by defensive guru and former Buffalo Grove star Tamika Catchings, it's the way Indiana always plays, and it seems to bother the Sky more than most teams.

"Our kids battle," Dunn told me after a recent win at Allstate Arena. "They have a warrior mentality and they go into every game (against the Sky) trying to make everything difficult. Nothing comes easy. We make it hard for Sylvia to get open, hard for her to get touches. We know we're outsized against her, so sometimes we have one, two, three and sometimes four people coming at her. We change it up on her. We make it hard for their guards to get looks, and we try to make it really hard for Elena Delle Donne to get a shot off.

"That's our game plan. We see every possession as a war. We want you to struggle for everything."

Frankly, the Sky should have the same mentality. The Sky's best chance at victory in this series is to beat Indiana at its own game, because there are plenty of ways the Sky can make the Fever struggle.

The Fever is the worst shooting team in the WNBA (39.3 percent) while the Sky tops the league in field-goal percentage defense (40.4 percent). The Sky is also the best shot-blocking team in the WNBA (6.6 bpg). Between aggressively defending shooters to force bad shots and blocking as many shots as possible, the Sky could derail the Fever's suspect offense.

As the WNBA's top rebounding team, the Sky must capitalize on some easy putbacks. On the defensive end, they must control the boards and limit Indiana's second-chance opportunities.

"There's a reason we're at the top of the league in so many categories, and that's what I keep telling our players," Chatman said. "I like our numbers on defense and we have to use that to our advantage. I think defense and rebounding can be really big come playoff time."

So can mental toughness and fortitude.

If there is a nervousness or an uneasiness regarding Indiana, that has to be squashed, like yesterday. Fear and doubt can be a team's worst enemies. The Sky must dig deep for that mental toughness and focus on every possession.

"I'm really not too worried," Chatman said of her team's mental state. "Yeah, we're 1-3 against Indiana this season. We don't hide that. But we also don't live in the past.

"We're a different team now, a better team and we're hungry. This (playoffs) is what we've been talking about since May, and really since the first day I got here.

"We're excited for this, and we're ready to go. At the end of the day, we're going to make this about what we do."

This time, I agree, and it should be just enough to solve "the problem." My prediction: Sky 2, Indiana 1.

• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw.

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