By CLIFF BRUNT
The Indiana Fever look like they’re right on track for another title.
It sure didn’t look that way when the team was on a seven-game losing streak, making that ring ceremony seem like old news.
Suddenly, the Fever look like themselves, except they aren’t themselves at all.
Katie Douglas, one of the best players in WNBA history, played the first two games and hasn’t played since because of a bulging disc in her lower back. Sharpshooter Jeanette Pohlen hasn’t played this season because of a torn ACL in her left knee. Starting center Jessica Davenport is out for the season with a stress fracture in her left tibia. Guard Erin Phillips just returned from an extended absence because of a torn meniscus in her right knee, and her minutes are being limited.
With all the bad luck, it just didn’t seem like a repeat was meant to be. It didn’t even seem like the playoffs were meant to be.
The Fever worked hard, made some luck and started looking like defending champions should. Indiana has won six of seven and is back in the Eastern Conference playoff mix after starting the season with a 1-7 record. Now, Indiana is fourth in the Eastern Conference standings at 7-8. The top four in the East get into the playoffs.
“I think the biggest thing is probably just being able to come together,” Fever forward Tamika Catchings recently told Indy Sports Legends. “You’ve got a lot of new faces, people getting hurt, never knowing who’s in, who’s out. I think as a team over the last five games, we’ve gotten more comfortable playing with each other and just picked up the intensity.”
Catchings has been what she has always been — a steady, do-it-all player. Erlana Larkins and Briann January have been solid.
But the biggest improvement has come from Shavonte Zellous. She averaged a career-high 16.1 points through 14 games after averaging no more than 11.9 in a season in her career. She averaged 7.5 points last season and 5.5 the year before. Now, she looks like an All-Star.
“I think she’s done a tremendous job of stepping up and asserting herself offensively, being at times the No. 1, No. 2 option out there for us,” Douglas said. “We need her to continue to feel that comfort.”
Karima Christmas also has stepped up. She averaged 7.2 points through 14 games after averaging just 3.6 last year for Tulsa.
“Crashing the boards, offensive production, another big, solid wing player that we have on defense,” Catchings said.
Indiana’s defense also has returned to form. The Fever allowed 73.9 points per contest in their first eight games, but 63.1 in their past seven.
Indiana isn’t just winning — the Fever’s six wins during this recent stretch have come by an average of 11.7 points per game.
Those improvements will make Indiana more dangerous when Douglas and Pohlen return. Zellous would become a major matchup problem because opponents would have to figure out whether to put their best perimeter defender on Zellous or Douglas. Even worse, it might not matter what they do.
Christmas would come off the bench as a confident, capable player. With Phillips, an improved Christmas and a healthy Pohlen coming off the bench, Indiana becomes an extremely dangerous team.
“You look at where we’re at and where we’re going, and yeah, it is kind of like one of those things like we want it right now, but at the end of the day, when Katie does get healthy and when the whole team gets healthy — the players that are playing right now are getting the confidence that we need — we’re going to be a better team overall,” Catchings said.
Phillips had played in the previous three games but didn’t play on Sunday as a precautionary measure and the Fever still won. Again, the team’s ever-improving depth was on display. Now, Lin Dunn, seemingly in a daze after winning her first title and losing so many players, might be a Coach-of-the-Year candidate if this turnaround continues.
Chicago leads the East right now, and the Sky have rookie sensation Elena Delle Donne. But the Sky has never won anything and I won’t believe they can until they do, new superstar or not. Atlanta, which started the season with a 10-1 record, has lost four straight. Washington is in third in the East, but Indiana just beat the Mystics in consecutive games. That’s about to be another Catchings blow-by in the standings.
In other words, things are going according to plan. It’s just happening in a weird, roundabout way. Though Indiana’s ultimate goal is another WNBA title, Catchings knows the Fever need to first focus on getting into postseason play.
“One game at a time,” she said. “We’ll just continue to focus on one game. Don’t focus on what our record is, focus on getting better and better every single game. I think with that mentality and looking at each game one by one, I feel like we’ve gotten so much better.”