It’s been over a month since the Fever avoided being on the wrong side of history with a 90-87 win over the Atlanta Dream. Indiana had seen two kinds of losses before the trip to the Peach State—a close loss to the Connecticut Sun and a blowout loss to the New York Liberty.
It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like your team can only play high-level basketball for spurts at a time. But it’s also easy to make a spirited effort when the chance to rewrite history is staring you in your face.
And the Fever made the effort. As a result, they found themselves in a place they hadn’t been since June 19, 2022—the win column. It wasn’t easy, a successful coach’s challenge led to a late-game basket from guard Kelsey Mitchell, but few things have been easy for the Fever over the last year. This moment was something the team was working toward since the beginning of the season.
“We talked about it from day one in our team meeting: Culture is the most important thing,” head coach Christie Sides said. “Culture, playing hard, being the hardest-working team in practice. And I promise you, coaches say it all the time, but these guys have worked really hard every day.”
This win was also the start of the slow and steady climb back to consistency. Something that takes time.
“We’re building something here, and that’s going to take time,” Sides said. “This was just a huge piece for us to get this win. Everyone focused on their role and did exactly what they were supposed to do. Those are the things we’ve been working on.”
With the WNBA All-Star break in the rearview, Indiana finds itself in a position to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015. With a 6-16 record, the Fever sit only three games back from a playoff spot.
The path to a playoff berth is clearer than one may expect, but actually getting there will take a full-court-press effort from the Fever.
What’s Working: Finding Their Offensive Rhythm
In 2022, the Fever were statistically the worst offensive team in the WNBA. This season, the story has flipped.
According to WNBA.com, Indiana’s offensive rating is 102.3, good for fifth overall in the league. That’s a 7.0 point difference from 2022, when the Fever had the league’s worst offensive rating at 95.2.
Indiana knows its strengths offensively start inside the paint. The Fever are making teams pay with the usage of forward NaLyssa Smith and center Aliyah Boston in high-low action, leading to Indiana scoring 47.1 percent of its points this season in the paint.
Combine that percentage with the 13.4 percent of points scored this season by the Fever in the midrange and you have a whopping 59.4 percent of points scored inside the arc.
Much of the team’s success inside the three-point line can be accredited to Boston’s uncanny scoring ability. According to Her Hoop Stats, her points per scoring attempt rate is 1.29, and the percentage of points she has scored in two-point range is 76.9 percent.
But she’s not the only one finding ways to pick apart interior defenses.
For starters, Fever guard Lexie Hull has improved her scoring ability since last season. In 2022, Hull shot 32.3 percent from two-point range. This year, according to WNBA.com, her two-point shooting percentage has jumped up to 55.2 percent. The former Stanford Cardinal’s growth on the offensive side of the ball led her to setting a new career high in scoring with 20 points against the Washington Mystics on July 7.
Then there’s Mitchell. Her role has changed slightly during the early stages of Sides’ tenure, becoming more of a perimeter shooter than she was previously. However, Mitchell is still effective inside the arc. The former Ohio State standout is currently scoring 37.9 percent of her points from two-point range, with 10.5 percent coming in the midrange. The six-year veteran also isn’t afraid to fight for a tough layup.
Indiana’s offensive improvements led to the Fever being among the most efficient offenses in the league in June. It’s clear that Indiana’s retooled offense gives the team plenty of firepower to compete with some of the top teams in the WNBA. But what’s also apparent are the little things that hold the Fever back.
What Needs To Be Fixed: Inconsistency Woes
There aren’t many traits that separate the best from the rest in the WNBA. Every game is competitive. The bottom teams in the league aren’t lying down for the top dogs. But a crucial aspect that separates those aforementioned groups is consistency. And Indiana currently has a consistency problem.
At the beginning of the season, the Fever struggled to close out games. In the season opener against the Connecticut Sun, Indiana fought its way within three points late in the fourth quarter only for the Sun to pull away for a 70-61 victory.
The other losses Indiana has suffered this season mirror the early season loss to the Sun. Out of the Fever’s 15 losses this season, 12 have been by a single-digit deficit, and seven were decided on the last bucket of regulation.
On paper, it appears that Indiana is competing with teams to the wire. But there’s more going on than meets the eye.
Let’s take the June 4 game against the defending champions, Las Vegas Aces. The Fever led by 10 points and looked poised to get their second win of the season against the then undefeated west coast superteam. But just as the door to a victory began to creep open, Indiana failed to even touch the doorknob. The Aces began to pick apart Indiana’s defense. Down 10, Las Vegas answered back with a whopping 23-9 run. Boston tied the game late in the fourth with a layup, but it was too little, too late. The momentum the Aces gained led them to an 84-80 victory over the Fever.
“We keep giving up,” Sides said. “Chicago was 29 [and]Vegas was 28 points in the fourth quarter. We are not doing what we have to do to lock people down and get a stop at the end of the game, and it’s killing us.”
Fortunately, Indiana is very aware of its struggles to put together a full four-quarter effort. But it takes more than awareness to compete for a playoff spot in this league. It takes action, and that’s exactly the thing Sides has been trying to instill in her team all season.
“We’re trying to create this culture and this environment of being a pro, and all of that goes into it,” Sides said. “You’ve got to be able to correct your own mistakes.”
Sure, the Fever have a young core of players. Those players, however, have shown that their youth is not going to stop them from competing. But the mistakes are piling up, and what was a minute problem has now become a glaring burden the team has brought onto themselves.
A looming question now surrounds this squad: Are the Fever mature enough to correct their mistakes?
Is a Playoff Push Worth It?
It’s no secret that Indiana is in the midst of a rebuilding phase. However, as the team has continued the rebuild process, the Fever have discovered just how competitive they can be.
Still, there are some glaring issues that Indiana may not be able to fix. Plus, with how the first stretch of the season has turned out, the Fever look to be in prime position to obtain the first pick in the 2024 draft. The team with the worst record over the last two seasons has a 42.0 percent chance of securing the number one pick. Indiana could have a decent shot in getting a generational talent like UConn’s Paige Bueckers or reigning National Player of the Year Caitlin Clark.
But is the tank worth it?
Three of the 2022 playoff teams—the Liberty, Wings, and Mercury—had a winning percentage of .500 or below. The current gap between the Fever and the eighth-best team, the Sky, is only three games.
The opportunity is there for the taking.
There’s also the very real possibility that Clark and Bueckers use their COVID year and play in the NCAA system until 2025. Those players fit what Indiana needs the most, and them holding off on going pro for another year could leave Indiana in a bit of a tough position should they acquire the top pick in 2024.
There are a plethora of scenarios Indiana needs to consider as it begins the second stretch of the season. Doors are opening up for this team. It’s up to Indiana to choose where it wants to be when the calendar flips to September.
Stats listed in this article are as of 7/23. Unless otherwise stated, all stats are courtesy of WNBA.com.