Thursday's game crucial for squad

After 34 games, dozens of red-eye commercial flights and their best-ever record in the WNBA, the Indiana Fever have a harsh reality to face in the playoffs. They've got to win or face elimination. Tamika Catchings

The best-of-three first round series, which began Tuesday night, comes to Conseco Fieldhouse Thursday evening (7 p.m., NBA-TV) in one of the league's most intriguing playoff matchups: the age and experience of the New York Liberty versus the youth and speed of Indiana.

"The playoffs are different," said Liberty All-Star forward Vickie Johnson after Saturday night's game. "You have to earn every basket, every rebound and every opportunity. Nothing is going to be handed to you during the playoffs. Indiana is a strong team and we can't underestimate them. Our main thing is staying focused."

That's the challenge for the young Fever team as well. Despite posting a franchise best 21-13 record, good enough for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, the team has struggled at times to find consistency.

The Fever destroyed New York in the regular season finale on Saturday, 75-50, and looked like a team ready for the postseason. But 48 hours before in Detroit, the Fever had 18 turnovers and were heavily out-rebounded by the Shock, a possible second-round playoff matchup for Indiana.

Detroit started the second half with an 11-0 run to put the game away and nothing seemed to work for Indiana.

It was a different story on Saturday, as the Fever took control early and put the Liberty away at the start of the second half. New York coach Pat Coyle benched several key players, including All-Star point guard Becky Hammon, who watched helplessly as their second unit got abused by the Fever offense.

The Fever's Kelly Miller put up 13 points and Tully Bevilaqua had 10 as the Fever cruised to victory. Now, they must face the Liberty, who defeated Indiana in the 2002 playoffs, again.

"Indiana is a young team and is very well-coached," New York coach Pat Coyle said. "They do a lot of good things. They have great players who are difficult to contain. The transition game and rebounding are two areas we're going to be working upon."

In some ways, the Fever and the Liberty are similar. Both teams were built around their stars by well-timed draft picks and non-heralded free agents. The Liberty acquired the 5-foot-6 Hammon in 1999 after no other team wanted her. Forward Shameka Christon was the steal of the 2004 draft.

The Fever was built around Tamika Catchings, the third pick in the 2001 draft, but were unsuccessful in maximizing their starting five until this year. The Fever selected Rookie of the Year candidate Tan White in the first round last year. Center Kelly Schumacher, a star at Connecticut, has developed into one of the league's elite players at the position in her fourth year.

The addition of Belivaqua, a free-agent signing from the 2004 champion Seattle Storm, may have been the intangible that made the Fever so successful this year. Scrappy and resilient, she's provided leadership as well as solid play at the point.

Meanwhile, the Fever have had their most successful season off the court as well. Attendance is up 7 percent over last season and Conseco Fieldhouse has been filled around 82 percent of its WNBA capacity all season.

Catchings has become the quickest player in WNBA history to reach each of four milestones: 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals. She did that in four seasons, while the previous record was held by Sheryl Swoopes, who took seven seasons to hit those totals.

And the Fever have credible candidates for most improved player (Belivaqua) and coach of the year (Brian Winters) as well as MVP and rookie of the year.

The third and concluding game of the playoff series, if necessary, will be held Saturday night at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Fever, if they move on, will play the winner of the Connecticut-Detroit series in the conference finals.

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