Fever Found Success in Face of Adversity

by Wheat Hotchkiss | September 29, 2013

It’s safe to say the 2013 Indiana Fever season followed an unforeseen path.

This wasn’t your typical title defense. No one expected the road to repeating would be paved with gold. But as the season unfolded, that road turned out to be littered with far more potholes and roadblocks than anyone could have expected.

But through it all, the Fever persevered. They endured innumerable injuries, shooting slumps, and roster revisions, emerging at the end of the year once again as one of the league’s best teams. Given everything this group overcame, it’s hard not to term this year a success.

After capturing the 2012 WNBA Championship, and with virtually last year’s entire roster returning, most predictions had Indiana cruising comfortably to one of the top records in the Eastern Conference. But the season took a turn before it even began.

First, center Jessica Davenport sustained a stress fracture in her left foot. Then, guard Erin Phillips tore her right meniscus early into training camp. Already without the services of guard Jeanette Pohlen – rehabbing from an ACL tear suffered in last year’s playoffs – the defending champs opened the year short on healthy bodies.

Just two games in to the year, four-time All-Star Katie Douglas was diagnosed with a bulging disc in her lower back, an injury that would keep her out for all but two games the rest of the season.

Forced to rely on rookies and replacement players, Indiana sputtered at the start, losing seven straight games on route to a 1-7 record. Just a couple weeks after hanging a championship banner, the Fever were now hanging their heads.

But the defending champs proved to be a resilient bunch, rallying to win six of their next eight games, and went 15-10 in the next 25 games to clinch the franchise’s ninth consecutive playoff appearance.

Adversity continued to strike throughout the season. There would be more injuries – nine players missed games over the course of the year. There would also be more rough stretches, like an ugly three-game West Coast road trip in mid-August with All-Star Shavonte Zellous sitting out with plantar fasciitis. Remarkably, the Fever never got back over the .500 mark after opening the season with a 79-64 win in San Antonio.

But the season also wasn’t short on highlights. With adversity comes opportunity, and plenty of players grew and developed thanks to increased workloads.

Shavonte Zellous and Erlana Larkins continued the ascent they started in last year’s playoffs.

“Z” became a consistent scoring option alongside Tamika Catchings. She transformed from reliable role player to budding star, earning deserved recognition as a first-time All-Star and the runaway choice for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player Award.

“E” cemented herself in the starting rotation. She proved reliable (only Larkins and Karima Christmas played in every game) and relentless on the boards. Though she stands just 6-1, Larkins more than held her own night in and night out against bigger post players, culminating in her outplaying 6-5 All-WNBA selection Sylvia Fowles in the first round of the playoffs.

Christmas may have been the most pleasant surprise of all. The third-year forward out of Duke transformed from a seldom-used reserve to a mainstay in the starting lineup. Christmas showed an ability to play both the small and power forward positions, defend the other team’s best player, and make defenses pay on the other end.

As for Catchings, this may have been her most underrated season in her storied career. As the injuries mounted and she herself nursed a bad back for much of the year, Catchings remained Indiana's rock, with her level-headed leadership and elite-level play. The 34-year old, three-time Olympic gold medalist, and unquestioned face of the franchise finished the year with another remarkable stat line: 17.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.8 steals per game.

If you’re looking for the best example of Indiana’s success as a team this season, look no further than how they played all year against Chicago. The Sky had arguably the top roster in the league with three All-Stars and two MVP candidates, but the Fever won five of six games against the Eastern Conference’s regular season champions, culminating with an emphatic evisceration in two games in the conference semifinals.

Though Sunday’s elimination at the hands of the Atlanta Dream ended the Fever’s hopes of a title repeat, the future looks bright. Other than Catchings and Douglas, Indiana’s entire roster is 28 or younger. Zellous, Larkins, Christmas, and Briann January are just now entering the prime of their careers. Layshia Clarendon got far more experience as a rookie than anyone could have anticipated, which should accelerate her development.

Sure, there are long-term questions. What is Douglas’ future? How much longer can Catchings continue to play at this level? When does the franchise start to transition from head coach Lin Dunn – under contract for at least one more season – to coach-in-waiting Stephanie White?

The answer to all those questions will come down the road. Right now, it’s time to remember this season for what it was: a success.