Lineup, Rotation Shuffles Pay Dividends
Sometimes it seemed as if the correct formula might elude Coach Brian Winters.
But during the Olympic break, Kelly Schumacher returned to health afer suffering an ankle sprain in late July. Winters re-thought his guard-oriented offense and adjusted it to take better advantage of Natalie Williams and the 6-4 Schumacher in the paint. Deanna Jackson moved back into the lineup, but at small forward, pushing All-Star forward Tamika Catchings to shooting guard. Meanwhile, Niele Ivey, a proven 3-point threat in seasons past yet largely forgotten this season, moved into the rotation after three weeks of strong practices in August.
Winters would insert Schumacher into the lineup as he'd planned to do before her injury. The Fever would morph into more of a power team with Schumacher and Williams on the post.
And finally, after other moves created only a modicum of success, something clicked.
“We wanted to go with a power lineup and Deanna is just more comfortable as a forward. Tamika is a little better ball handler,” said Winters. “We let Tamika initiate some offense now along with Kelly. It’s worked, so we’ll keep doing it.”
The result has been a 3-0 September for the Fever, which has climbed back to .500 (15-15) and into second place in the Eastern Conference with four games to play. Not only has the Fever won all three of its games since returning from the Olympic Break, it has done so in convincing fashion, putting together the most dominant three-game stretch in franchise history. Indiana has won its three games in September by a total of 52 points – an average margin of 17.3 points per game.
"We were all a little discouraged about (how July ended)," said Winters. "But I wasn't down in the dumps about it. I felt we could regroup and play better - and we have."
Throughout the early portion of the season, the Fever would follow successes with failures. A near-disastrous six-game losing streak ended July. Before the Olympic Break, Winters used four different starting lineups, beginning the season with rookie Ebony Hoffman as a surprise starter at power forward, Williams at center, Catchings at small forward, and Jackson and Kelly Miller as the guards.
It just didn’t quite click.
So, Stephanie White moved in at guard as a settling force for a team that wanted to play an up-tempo game, but sometimes became too frenetic for its own good, and Hoffman went to the bench. Later, Jackson sat down and Kristen Rasmussen moved into the lineup when Winters wanted to go to Schumacher in late July, but Schumacher sprained her ankle in practice and was unable to play. Again, some good performances were followed by poor ones, so Winters used August to define his players' roles and alter his offense around his new, bigger lineup.
“I think we have a really big presence inside with both Nat and I,” said Schumacher. “But beyond the whole starting-lineup thing, I think we came together a lot as a team in the last month. We always had a lot of off-court chemistry, but I think we really exploded with our on-court chemistry. We communicate a lot better. I think everybody’s happier. Everybody knows their roles now. Some people may not be ecstatic about them, but they're willing to accept them to win and that’s helping us a lot.”
In her three games as a starter, Schumacher is averaging 11.7 points per game, up from 6.0 ppg at the break. Her presence has also made Williams more effective. Williams is averaging 13.7 points and 8.5 rebounds in September, up from 9.7 points and 6.6 rebounds before the break.
“It helps me to have Schu in there,” said Williams. “She’s another big threat. It helps us to go high-low. You can no longer double-team me because we can pass it to one another. It also helps Tamika playing the two (guard) because she’s able to move freely and she doesn’t have to guard a big post player like she was the first half of the season.”
Even so, most of Catchings’ experience at shooting guard came during her recent play in the Olympics, when she was looked to by U.S. Coach Van Chancellor to be his defensive stopper on the perimeter.
“That’s pretty much my resume (at guard),” said Catchings. “But I’m all for it as long as it helps the team and as long as we keep rolling like this.”
The Fever plays its next two games at home – Friday against San Antonio and Monday against Seattle – before finishing out the season on the road (at New York and Connecticut). But the recent changes and the ensuing winning streak have breathed confidence into a team that seemed to have little as it limped toward August.
“I think everyone has adapted to (Winters’) system and now we’re trying to gel together with whatever rotation he puts out there for the playoff run and for the Championship,” said Ivey. “We trust the coaches and we’ve definitely learned how to trust each other. It’s building with each game.”