The Commendable Expendables
Michael Hickeyt/NBAE/Getty Images
Eight months ago Erlana Larkins didn’t have a WNBA team, Briann January was rehabbing a torn ACL, Erin Phillips had her sights set on playing for an Olympic team she wouldn’t eventually make and Shavonte Zellous was a just a quality reserve that had bounced around from team to team.
But in the 2012 WNBA Finals, those four, along with superstar Tamika Catchings, comprised the starting lineup for the Indiana Fever team that went on to win the WNBA championship over the heavily-favored Minnesota Lynx in just four games.
The quartet weren’t exactly castaways. But they weren’t exactly coveted, either.
Larkins, the 6-foot-1 forward that Catchings said was “off the chain” in the playoffs, is probably the biggest example of this this, both in size and relevance. Larkins was inserted into the lineup late in the season and in those games the Fever went 9-2.
“You know, I’ve been coaching 42 years and probably the best coaching adjustment I ever made in my life when I inserted Erlana Larkins into the starting lineup in the Atlanta series,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said. “I loved her energy, I loved her sixth man, but I didn’t love how we were starting the game getting beat on the boards. So putting her in the lineup, and telling her how important she was and what we needed her to do was huge, and we would not be here today if we hadn’t done that, no doubt.”
Hard to believe that she sat unsigned for two full seasons after she played two years with the New York Liberty in 2008 and 2009, but not at all in 2010 or 2011.
“My agent marketed me to anyone he could and Indiana was actually the only that offered a deal so I came and look at where we are now,” Larkins said. “Coming into training camp, I was just looking for a spot on the team, but then in due time, I think my role came just to be that energy player and that rebounder and just being that toughness to the Indiana Fever.”
Larkins didn’t exactly take the express route to the Fever, but you can partially thank Zellous, Larkins’ teammate in Turkey, for the recruitment.
“I played with her overseas. This is nothing new to me,” Zellous said of Larkins’ performance. “I see her do this, this is probably the twelfth month in a row. We spent seven months already overseas together but I knew she could do this and that’s one of the reasons I told her this would be a great fit for her. This is something we need, we need someone on the boards like her and she’s amazing.”
Recruiting aside, Zellous played a major role on the court during the Fever’s championship run, even though prior to the 2012 season she had played on three teams in her four-year career and had started a total of only seven games.
In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Connecticut, Zellous hit a game-winning jumper with 0.5 seconds left to extend the series to a third game. Then, once Katie Douglas went down with an injury in the next game, Zellous stepped backed into the starting lineup and averaged 15.8 points per game the rest of the way.
The highlight of Zellous’ postseason was a 30-point performance in Indiana’s blowout Game 3 victory over the Lynx. It was that clutch effort that underscored this team’s next-man-up philosophy, especially since the Fever, already playing without Douglas, lost reserve guard Jeanette Pohlen the game before.
When it comes to toughness, January embodies it, suffering a torn ACL just 10 games into the 2011 season, but returning to be a key contributor this year, especially on the defensive end. The 5-foot-8 guard, who was selected to the 2012 WNBA All-Defensive team, held Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus to 6-for-30 shooting in Games 3 and 4 when she had that primary assignment.
“That was my goal was coming back this year and just doing whatever I could to take us up another notch,” January said. “I know we made it to the Playoffs but we wanted to take another step this year and I think we really did. I think, man, every day I was working was for this moment last year, just every day of rehab was for this moment.”
January was moved to tears in the locker room when discussing her journey back and she credited her teammates and their constant support for giving her encouragement during her recovery.
One of those teammates was Phillips. The Australian guard, who played in the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Championships, could have left the Fever to train with her national team for the 2012 Olympics like other WNBA stars Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage, but she opted to stay with the Fever during the season’s first half.
Largely a result of her limited role in the national team’s preparation, Phillips was surprisingly left off the 2012 Olympic team; something that Phillips told the Seattle Times was “devastating.” Judging by how this team jelled during the month-long Olympic hiatus, however, this snub may have been a fortunate turn of events for Indiana.
“I think there’s highs and lows throughout the whole season and just different thoughts,” Catchings said. “But I can honestly say when I came back from the Olympic break and we got back together as a team, you could visibly see players got better during the break.”
In the Finals, Phillips was intense defensively but even more potent on the offensive end. Her best showing came in Game 4 as she scored 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds, including posting seven of the team’s first 11 points which helped set the tone of the game. Much like Zellous, Phillips rose to the occasion when Douglas went down in the Eastern Conference Finals, scoring in double figures in each of the final five games and averaging 13.8 points per game in that stretch, up from her season average of 6.1 per night.
While it wasn’t the ideal year Phillips had planned, the ending – judging by her emotions – played out just how she wanted it.
“We’ve been through so much as a team, we’ve lost people in crucial times and we’ve stuck together,” Phillips said. “I’m just so proud right now.”
Even Lin Dunn admitted before the series that the Lynx were the better and deeper team on paper, but the Fever peaked at the opportune time, and thanks to the converging paths of determined players like Larkins, Zellous, January and Phillips, Indiana was able to capture its first WNBA Title.
"I'm not calling Indiana not talented,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “But I think if you line up our team and you line up Indiana’s team, most people are going to pick our team if you’re going to go to battle. I think what Indiana has shown is just that, that hard work can overcome talent."