Once again tonight, the Indiana Fever have a chance to show that they’re turning a corner. Will it happen?
Sunday they outlasted the Minnesota Lynx on the road to snap a five-game losing streak and earn their fourth win of the season. It was their second victory over the Lynx, and their first in more than two weeks.
With strong performances from rookie NaLyssa Smith, who put up 21 points; and veterans Kelsey Mitchell, Danielle Robinson and Victoria Vivians, who also each scored in double-digits, the Fever have a chance to carry that momentum forward and win two two straight games in a row for the first time in over a month, as they host the struggling Phoenix Mercury.
If anyone will lead them there, it’s Smith, who is averaging 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in 30 minutes per game. The talented forward has scored in single digits just twice, and coach Carlos Knox said her game has grown exponentially since the last such outing two weeks ago.
“NaLyssa has been putting in an extreme amount of work,” Knox said. “We’ve had very detailed conversations about her being a professional and making an immediate contribution to the game.”
After making the WNBA playoffs for 11 consecutive seasons, Indiana has struggled since franchise legend Tamika Catchings retired in 2016. A high-energy playmaker who was dangerous on both ends of the floor, Catchings was the consummate team leader, often willing them to wins.
Mitchell, whom the Fever drafted in 2018, has been a reliable double-digit scorer with numerous unsung brilliant performances. But she hasn’t always had a supporting cast around her, nor is she the vocal leader that Catchings was. Smith, who responded on court when Minnesota guard Aerial Powers pushed her during the weekend matchup, has that fire.
“I woke up yesterday and was like, ‘we’ve got to get this one,'” she said post-game. “You get tired of losing. I wanted to win badly, so I had to to everything to help my team.”
Knox said that Smith wouldn’t have made the plays she did against the Lynx 3-4 weeks ago.
“I think she’s coming into her own as a professional,” he said. “She understands the pace, the speed and the physicality of the WNBA. I feel like she’s on the way to being exactly who she wants to be in this league. It will take determination, desire and focus, but she will be one of those players.”
Another bright spot for Indiana is Vivians. After missing half of her first three years in the league due to injury, she is averaging 11.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, while bringing energy to the floor that is reminiscent of her days at Mississippi State.
Robinson, averaging 8.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, said she is happy to help take some of the load off Mitchell.
“Kelsey’s been carrying a lot of weight for us, and sometimes me carrying more of the load makes it easier for her,” Robinson said. “She’s drawing so much attention that there’s going to be times that I need to take the lead…..I’ve got to be able to bring that every night.”
Defense has been a liability for the Fever, as they finished 12th in defense last year, and they are last on defense this year so far. They give up 88.1 points per game, and have a defensive rating of 108.4.
Sparks of life on that end of the floor have come from rookie Queen Egbo, who is second on the team in rebounds, with a 6.7 average, and scrappy rookie Emily Engstler, who averages 6.4 and likes to disrupt opponents.
The win against Minnesota came from tough play, Knox said.
“It was about grit. We came into the huddle and talked about what it would take to win a game like this,” he said. “A lot of things have to go right for you to walk out with a win, so we wanted to make sure we were positive, focused and determined.”
Knox said the team was “in tune with each other” before, and during the matchup.
“I think we came together as a team in so many different areas, from communication to our passing ability, to our ability to play defensively…..it was a matter of being in rhythm and being focused.”
It will take that kind of mentality to beat Phoenix tonight.
“We know there’s another level of energy and effort we have to get to to win games,” Robinson said after the Lynx win. “The effort we gave (tonight) was completely different than the (losing) effort against new York in the second half. We feel like we’re giving games say, and tonight we didn’t want to do that. So we made plays down the stretch.”
Smith said she talked through schemes with her teammates Sunday, and increased communication among everyone made a difference.
“It’s only up from here,” Smith said. “We’ve got to stay consistent and keep our foot on the gas.”
Tipoff is 7 p.m. ET.
Lamarr Fields contributed to this report.