Fever will use Olympic break to finish building chemistry

Stephanie White conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.
Stephanie White conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.

The Indiana Fever finished the first part of their season before the Olympic break on an extreme high note.

After alternating winning and losing streaks to begin the year, they pulled together their last two weeks to win five of their final six games. And the last three match ups were the biggest: they downed the Atlanta Dream to pull within one game of them in the standings; they toppled the league-leading Los Angeles Sparks; and they bested the Eastern Conference leaders, the New York Liberty.

As a result of their push, the Fever went from bottom-feeders to breaking even at 12-12, with the fifth-best record in the WNBA. Now they look to build on their momentum by solidifying their chemistry in time for the recommencement of their season, Aug. 27.

Point guard Briann January said she and her teammates are reveling in the chance to reboot and refresh before making a playoff push.

“It allows us to work on improving and getting better in the areas that we need to,” January said of the break. “Our focus this whole season has been getting better every day, so we have a great opportunity during the Olympic break to continue to get better every day, work on what we need to and become more of a cohesive unit. It’s going to be a productive time.”

Forward Erlana Larkins said the team wants to bottle the momentum they found a few weeks ago, and carry it forward.

“We have time to fine-tune things going into the second part of the season,” she said. “We’ll be able to build our chemistry as a team even more and go into the second half of the season ready to reel in some wins and make the playoffs.”

Indiana played their last game July 21, and reconvened practice last week. January said the rest was needed.

“A lot of our players have been playing year-round, and the Olympic break is allowing us to rest, get some treatment for some nagging issues, and be able to come in and finish the rest of the season strong,” she said.

The Fever is missing Tamika Catchings, who is helping the United States team in its quest for gold, and Natalie Achonwa, who is playing for Canada. Coach Stephanie White is keeping the practice schedule loose during the transition.

“We’ll go for a couple of days and then have a fun day, then we’ll go for a couple of days, have a couple of days off,” White said. “I left it up to them as far as how they want to structure their days.”

White is treading lightly, with her team’s challenges in mind.

January began the season still not fully recovered from a meniscus tear she sustained in last year’s WNBA Championship Finals. Guard Maggie Lucas took up much of the slack with high-caliber play, and seemed poised to have a breakout season. But just three weeks in, she tore her ACL and was lost for the year. Guard Shenise Johnson also missed some time with a concussion. White said these circumstances stalled the team.

“We’ve been up and down because of the injuries, and we’ve had to shuffle the line ups because of the injuries. It’s been kind of hit and miss,” White said.

“It’s hard because it’s not allowing us to get into any flow or rhythm. We started out without Bri, and then we got her back and lost Maggie, while at the same time losing Shenise for a bit. We’ve got some knees that are maintenance knees with some of our vets. We can’t get a substitution pattern or a starting lineup consistently because of the injuries.”

Erica Wheeler looks to pass the ball. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.
Erica Wheeler looks to pass the ball. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.

January said injuries and newcomers mean that chemistry-building has been slow to develop.

“Us being consistent is our main issue right now – executing on both ends of the court,” she said. “(We need to) put ourselves in positions to be successful and use all of our strengths. We have so many weapons, but we need to figure out how to optimize all of them. We need to be aggressive in our sets all the time.”

White said performance factors have also been an issue for Indiana.

“We’re not shooting the ball as well as we did last year. We haven’t been able to get out of that lately,” White said. “When we do, we have high assist numbers, high shot numbers and great balance, and we have a lot of pressure on our defense.”

“I can’t put my finger on why we seem to have these erratic shifts, but that’s part of our journey is to figure that out.”

Tamika Catchings on the fast break. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.
Tamika Catchings on the fast break. Photo courtesy of Indiana Fever.

Catchings, who has been the Fever’s emotional and statistical leader for 15 years, isn’t always available to come to the rescue anymore, as she is playing less minutes in her last season before retirement.

“We try to maintain her between 27 and 30 (minutes per game) for efficiency purposes,” White said.

A bright spot for the team has been rookie Tiffany Mitchell, who has proved to be a steal at the No. 9 pick. She is averaging 10.5 points per game behind Catchings, and began her pro career with eight consecutive double-doubles – the only newcomer in franchise history to do so. The former South Carolina Gamecock is quiet, but fearless, and doesn’t necessarily play like a rookie.

“One of the advantages (Mitchell) has is she’s always ready on the defensive end,” White said. “She’s able to give herself a lot of time because of that advantage. She’s aggressive to the rim, she’s a worker, she comes in early to get shots up, she’s tough-minded. She’s got to learn that the things she does well, teams are going to try to take from her. I think she’s got an opportunity to be a really special player for a long time.”

Newcomer Erica Wheeler, a second-year free agent, has also proven to be valuable for the Fever, as she is averaging 8.4 points per contest and has started 17 games. Fan and team favorite Jeannette Pohlen, who was cut in training camp, returned to the Fever a month ago, and her presence has helped solidify team chemistry.

Before she left, Catchings said Indiana is still trying to put all their pieces together.

“When we play together, we look really really good, and when one thing is off, is throws everything else off,” she said. “It’s a transition time.”

Stephanie White talks with Briann January and Erica Wheeler. Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images.
Stephanie White talks with Briann January and Erica Wheeler. Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images.

Over the years, the Fever have shown that it is never a good idea to underestimate them. They fought to the bitter end in the 2009 WNBA Finals, and they completed an improbable playoffs run in 2012 with a Championship trophy. Last season they again played for the title after they weren’t projected to go further than the first round of the Eastern Conference championships.

Team members take cues from Catchings, with her eternal optimism and “no quit” disposition: they never give up.

“We’re going to continue to push the ball on offense, to be aggressive and to set the tone on defense,” January said. “We need to take other teams out of their offensive sets and make reads.”

“This is a different team and we’re making some adjustments, but that’s no excuse. We need to get it done and I think we will; we’re continuing to grow every game and build daily.”