It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Indiana Fever. In the six games between the Fever’s first win of the season and their first loss to the Chicago Sky, the Fever were outscored by 141 points. That’s an average margin of loss by 23.5 points. One quick explanation is that during that time frame, the Fever had played the most games in the league and were in the middle of a west coast road trip that didn’t see the team play at home between May 25 to June 12.
Still, at 1-12, the Fever have little clarity on which direction the team should move. However, you won’t find anybody in the organization that has lost faith. Every player and coach continues to buy into the culture, leaving room for unique lineups and players returning to form. Now that the team’s schedule isn’t condensed, coaches and players alike feel that it’s the perfect time to strike.
“I just liked that no matter who was out there and what combinations we had, they kept playing hard, playing with energy,” said head coach Marianne Stanley after the team’s series against the Sky. “We got good defensive cohesiveness most of the time, and that’s something we’ve been asking for. I told our team before the game, ‘show everyone what kind of team we are.’ And I think today they got to see a team play with great energy. A team that, no matter who was out there, played hard for each other.”
Stranger Things: Unique lineups paying dividends for Fever
Despite all of the shortcomings thus far, the Fever showed signs of life in their most recent games. When it came down to it, coach Stanley didn’t hold back in switching up her lineups. After the team’s devastating road trip, Stanley moved Teaira McCowan to the bench, which has paid quick dividends for the team.
In the more recent Chicago loss, McCowan posted 20 points and 13 boards to go along with a steal and a pair of blocks off the bench. In just three games in the past week, McCowan picked up 26 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 2 steals.
“Honestly, I don’t care if I come off the bench. I don’t care if I start,” McCowan said. “Once I come into the game, you know what I’m going to do.”
Stanley’s new starting lineup, consisting of Danielle Robinson, Tiffany Mitchell, Kelsey Mitchell, Jessica Breland, and Jantel Lavender, went toe to toe with the Sky in both games of the back to back series. That starting group actually outscored the Sky’s starters 67-52 in the team’s first loss to Chicago. That group also matched the Storm’s starting lineup in scoring in the latest game.
In that loss, the Fever were dominated on the bench, 40-9, a problem that coach Stanley was quick to fix. “We have to be better on defense,” Stanley said after the first game of the back-to-back. And better it was, as McCowan put up her best performance of the season and the bench unit clicked with further minute adjustment from game to game.
However, the bench was again an issue against the Seattle Storm, scoring just eight points in the team’s most recent loss. Expect more lineup changes to ensue, especially now that Aaliyah Wilson, originally selected by the Storm with the 11th overall pick in the 2021 draft, is healthy for the first time this season.
It’s the do-or-die part of the season, something that Stanley realizes and is quick to reward players who stand out.
“I thought we were much better defensively,” head coach Marianne Stanley said after the more recent loss to the Sky. “Overall much more energy. Better team defense. I thought our bench played a terrific game. Gave us a great lift, great energy, solid play. I thought Teaira McCowan was good off the bench, Lindsay Allen really really good off the bench. Lauren Cox gave us quality minutes today. And we need that.”
The frontcourt is the perfect example of this, as Stanley has rotated Breland, Lavender, and McCowan in and out of the starting lineup on a game-by-game basis. Breland is rewarding Stanley for the decision to keep her in the starting lineup, as she does a little bit of everything for the Fever. Breland’s energy is detected in the boxscore, as she’s stuffing the sheet with 7.8 points (fifth on team), 6.8 rebounds (second), 2.4 assists (second), .5 steals (third), and 1.5 blocks per game (first).
Breland’s impact is even more impressive when considering the fact that she plays just 21.5 minutes per game and has only seven starts under her belt. Her presence is felt all over the floor, as made evident in the above clip. Breland has the versatility to fill up the paint but also run the floor, as she gets it ahead to Tiffany Mitchell for the layup.
Tiffany Mitchell has also stepped up in recent games, culminating in a 20-point June 9 performance. Tiffany Mitchell has scored in double figures in seven of her last eight outings for the team.
Playing alongside McCowan in the bench lineup is Lindsay Allen, who shored up 12 points and six assists of her own on Saturday. Add in the three-point marksmanship of Victoria Vivians, and that’s the making of a deadly trio off the bench.
Allen turned in her best performance of the season on Saturday, giving the team a much-needed 12 points, six assists and three rebounds in the game. Within the span of the minute, Allen flexed her passing skills by making the same indoor pass to McCowan, who got two easy layups out of the ordeal.
But what’s even more fascinating is the way in which the young players on the team rose to the occasion when called upon. Both Kysre Gondrezick and Lauren Cox, the team’s back-to-back first round picks, put up arguably their best performances of the season against Chicago. Gondrezick didn’t shoot well against Chicago, but snagged three crucial steals that kept the team within striking distance. It says a lot about Gondrezick’s character and skill that coach Stanley trusted her in crunch time against one of the better on-paper teams in the league.
Just watch Gondrezick’s instincts on this play:
Cox also turned in a magnificent performance against the Sky, her best of the season, adding seven points, a steal, and a block in 12 minutes of play. Getting someone as talented as Cox into a bigger role, and her buying into that role, would be huge going down the stretch for the Fever. If the Fever does end up with the worst record in the league, having young players like Gondrezick and Cox establish themselves is integral in shaping a contender.
Kelsey Mitchell doing Kelsey Mitchell things
After struggling through the team’s road trip, shooting just 19.4 percent from deep along the way, Kelsey Mitchell has connected on 50 percent of her 22 three-point attempts in three games. Kelsey Mitchell has been dominant all season, averaging 15.9 points and 2.4 assists per game, but her shooting coming along is huge news for the Fever. That all culminated in a 26-point explosion against the Storm. The fifth-year guard attributed her success from deep to the team’s extended break.
“Honestly, this is gonna sound weird, but the only thing that I think went differently that happened was I went home,” Kelsey Mitchell noted. “I went home and I saw my family. I saw my nieces in particular, they’re kind of like my pride and joy. They’re like my kids… I hung out with my family for a whole day and it was just therapeutic. It was everything that I needed. But that was the only thing I did. I came back Sunday and that’s all I can say I really changed.”
The Fever rank dead last in the league in three-point percentage and take the second-least of such shots. Conversely, the team is second in the league in two-point shots attempted but is connecting on a middling 45.6 percent clip from that spot on the floor. Kelsey Mitchell getting her shot back to her 35.6 percent career rating would be a huge boost for a team that is desperately looking for life in that regard on offense.
“It felt good, it kind of just felt like, you keep working, man, and you just keep trying to figure it out as you go along,” Kelsey Mitchell remarked. “Get back to watching film, just the basics, and you come back and try to get it right. I guess I’m one step closer.”
It was clear that Kelsey Mitchell’s confidence was back as soon as she knocked in her sixth three-pointer of the June 9 game against the Sky.
With Kelsey Mitchell back in form, the Fever have at least three players that are capable of knocking it down from deep. While Vivians and Gondrezick have cooled down in recent games, both have the potential to click in an instant. Sooner or later, the Fever are going to have a game that features a barrage of three-pointers seemingly out of nowhere.
The Fever’s schedule won’t get much easier from here, but the games against the Sky featured the team playing like a cohesive unit, something that hasn’t been evident since its win over the Washington Mystics.
“Although everybody is really disappointed with a loss,” Stanley said after the Fever’s more recent loss to Chicago. “You never like to lose, I think we took a big leap forward today as a team. I think this is a game that we can build upon to keep getting better. We were better as a team. We were in the game from start to finish. We got good play out of our bench. There are a lot of things that you can point to that were better today and we can build on that. The hard part is that we have to go through it to get to the other side to be where we want to be. But I think this game is where we can look back and say that was the beginning of where we want to be as a team. We saw it today. We showed it today.”