INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Fever opened the season with a rookie head coach, a new offensive system and some growing pains, including a 1-4 start.
Now that same Indiana team is heading for the biggest stage in women’s professional basketball – the WNBA Finals. The 38-year-old coach, Stephanie White, continues to display uncommon wisdom and judgment. The team’s offense is smooth, effective and sometimes explosive.
And the Fever are the talk of the WNBA.
The Fever, champions of the Eastern Conference, will be the underdogs in their best-of-five Finals series against West champion Minnesota. But that hasn’t bothered them thus far in the 2015 playoffs as they’ve come back from one-game deficits to defeat both higher-seeded Chicago and New York in best-of-three series.
The Finals will be a rematch of 2012, when the Fever defeated Minnesota, 3-1, to capture the franchise’s first WNBA title. Indiana will be facing a Minnesota team that is in the Finals for the fourth time in five years. The Lynx have won it all twice.
The Fever must deal with a Lynx club that will be bigger at virtually every position and is led by 2014 MVP Maya Moore. One thing Indiana has going for it, however, is a motivation that is truly altruistic.
“We’re not only playing for ourselves,” said guard Shenise Johnson, “but we’re playing for something bigger here. We’re playing for Tamika Catchings and we’re playing for this organization. We want to go out there and try to do it the right way.”
As the Fever pursue their goal, here are some storylines likely to come into play:
Tamika Catchings discovers the fountain of youth
The Fever forward is 36 years old but playing like she’s 26, averaging 19.6 points in the 2015 playoffs, nearly three points above her career postseason average. Her teammates adore her and cherish her leadership. Catchings plans to retire after the 2016 season but still harbors a burning desire to win.
Extra rest, massages and healthy eating are all reasons she is enjoying one of her finest postseasons. “I feel great,” she said Thursday after the Fever’s practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
When White was asked what impresses her most about Catchings’ performance in 2015, the coach responded: “Just how she continues to find another gear. She continues to dig deep … and find another gear. It’s so impressive and a tribute to her will power, a tribute to her physical and mental toughness. Just when you think her tank is empty, she finds a way to fill it up.”
The maturation of Head Coach Stephanie White
After her team’s slow start, White took a hard look at things and made repairs. Shortly after the All-Star break, the Fever won nine of 10 games in one stretch, including three straight on a Western Conference swing. That gave White an inkling of the team’s possibilities before it went on to finish the regular season at 20-14, good for the third seed in the East.
White will lead Indiana into the opener at Minnesota on Sunday as the first rookie head coach to reach the Finals. Does that have special meaning for her?
“If we win it, it might mean something,” White said, smiling.
“It doesn’t really,” she added. “I feel my whole life has been preparing for moments like these. This is exactly the situation I’ve always dreamed of being in.”
Johnson, Coleman blossom under the spotlight
Some players wither and fade in the heat of the postseason. For others, the limelight seems to bring out the best. Johnson and Indiana teammate Marissa Coleman have fit nicely into the latter category during the Fever run.
Each has averaged 12.3 points through six playoff games. Johnson has added 4.6 rebounds a game and some sound play-making. Coleman has hit 14-of-31 3-pointers (45 percent).
Johnson notes she is having the most enjoyable time of her basketball life.
“I’m getting a lot of tweets, and I’m talking to my former coaches and they’re like: ‘This is what you are made for, this is what you were built for,’ ” Johnson said. “I’ve waited my whole life for this moment.”
Coleman was a standout on a national championship team at Maryland in 2006. In the WNBA, she has dealt with some uneven years at Washington and Los Angeles, but her career enjoyed liftoff this season with her first All-Star selection.
And in the playoffs, as Catchings said, Coleman “is peaking at the right time.”
Perhaps a scenario will play out like the one in 2012, when Fever players Erlana Larkins, Shavonte Zellous and Erin Phillips rose up to help Indiana to the title in the absence of the injured Katie Douglas.
Larkins is back and in top warrior form
Larkins was a rebounding phenom in the 2012 title run. This season, however, she has struggled with knee problems that kept her out of 13 regular-season games and limited her time in numerous others.
Through it all, Catchings encouraged Larkins to hang in, take care of herself and get ready for the postseason.
“What I need you to focus on is coming back and bringing that same energy and same intensity that you had in 2012,” Catchings said, relating what she told Larkins. “Here we are, and here she has it.”
Larkins is averaging 7.1 rebounds through six playoff games. The 6-foot-1 Larkins also averaged 9.3 points in three games against a tall New York front line. In the closeout victory at New York, Larkins had 12 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“The Chicago series, the way she was moving was actually quite surprising,” White said. “Not only did she play that entire series at that level, she was able to take it to another level in New York. I didn’t expect that from her this season.
“She’s been instrumental in our success. Had she not played like she has played in these last two series, we wouldn’t be here.”
Fever defense ascends to a higher level
Defensive struggles played a major role in the Fever’s slow start this season, but that has changed dramatically. It will be hard for any team to replicate what Indiana did in the two straight victories over New York. In the second half of Game 2 and the first half of Game 3, the Fever held the Liberty to a total of 42 points on 16-of-63 shooting (25.3 percent).
“A balanced effort,” Catchings called it afterward. “We’ve talked about making sure that it’s balanced scoring and balanced defense.”
The Fever will look for more of the same against Minnesota. And they will look to continue making it enjoyable for all.
“(It is) everybody really just gelling at the right time,” Catchings said. “It’s been fun to be a part of, and very rewarding. It’s kind of like seeing the puzzle come together and everybody bringing their piece.”