Indiana Fever are focused on the task at hand.
Minding Their Business
By Matt Wurst, WNBA.com
Despite winning a franchise-best 21 games and making their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Indiana Fever made some difficult decisions and got down to the dirty business of making personnel changes.
Perhaps the word "changes" is an understatement. In fact, the Fever overhauled their roster and added eight new players to the roster coming into this season. Gone were All-Star center Natalie Williams, center Kelly Schumacher, guard Kelly Miller and Jurgita Streimikyte from the starting lineup. Signed or acquired prior to the start of training camp were forward Tamika Whitmore, guard Anna DeForge, Olympia Scott, Charlotte Smith, Linda Frohlich, La'Tangela Atkinson and more. How did this menagerie of talent come together? The Fever opened the season winning their first four games and 12 of their first 17 games.
"We had eight new players, and I really didn't know how that was going to work," third year Fever coach Brian Winters said. "Whenever you change your team that dramatically, you wonder how that is going to work. You wonder how they are all going to fit together, not just on the court, but also their chemistry off the court. They had a good feeling about themselves from the first day and that made my job a little easier trying to figure out how to make them gell on the court."
Indeed, none of these changes disrupted the team's chemistry or overall success this season. Not with one of the best all-around players in the game, All-WNBA forward Tamika Catchings, on the team. For yet another season, Catchings led the Fever in the five major statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. She is the only player to finish in the Top Ten in the WNBA in those statistics. But she refuses to take all of the credit for her team's continued success.
"Out of the eight players that we brought in, six of them were veterans," Catchings said. "That really helped up come together quickly, knowing that we had that veteran experience and the desire to win.
In the past, however, despite Catchings' dominance, opposing teams knew that if they could limit her offensive output, perhaps double- or even triple-team her, then they could stop the Fever. That is no longer the case. DeForge was acquired in an offseason trade that brought a legitimate 3-point shooter and outside scoring threat to the team. She finished 2006 scoring around 10 points per game and nailing nearly 50 trifectas.
The other big addition, forward Tamika Whitmore, enjoyed the best season of her eight-year career, posting career numbers (16 ppg, 5 rpg) and being named to the Eastern Conference All-Star Game.
"I think it's been kind of a surprise to everybody that I have taken some of the load off their shoulders," Whitmore said. "Catchings is still the main force of our team and everything does revolve around her, but if you shut her down, there are other people to contend with now."
Defense Wins Championships
Perhaps Winters' greatest accomplishment has been turning the Fever into a dominant defensive team, which keeps them in every game they play. That approach worked well for the Sacramento Monarchs last year and netted them their first WNBA championship.
"That's what we do," Winters, a former NBA All-Star, said. "We are a good defensive team, that's been our identity the last couple of years. We have to be a good defensive team, so we cannot give up easy baskets and must contest other teams' shots.
In 2005, the Fever were second only behind the Monarchs with 62.7 points allowed per game. They improved upon that this season and were the best defensive team in the WNBA , the only team to hold opponents to fewer than 70 points per game.
"I'm biased, but Tamika Catchings is the Defensive Player of the Year," guard Tully Bevilaqua said.
The feeling was mutual.
Tully is my pick for Defensive Player of theYear," Catchings said. "She's right behind me in the steals and having her on our team is a big key for us."
Last season, the Catchings-Bevilaqua duo totaled 150 steals, the third-highest total by teammates in WNBA history. The tandem finished 1-2 in the WNBA this season, the first time teammates ever finished first and second in the category. Naturally, the Fever also have the best steals per turnover ratio.
"We are not a great offensive scoring team, but we really get into you on the defensive end," Whitmore said.
Last season, the Fever finished 11th out of the 13 teams in points per game and were still near the bottom this year, finishing 12th out of 14 teams.
Bring On Detroit
The Fever will face a difficult challenge in keeping pace with the Detroit Shock in their first round series. The two teams split the regular season series, each winning two games apiece.
"The one thing I've been talking about is just how physical and strong that they are," Catchings said. "They just play with a high intensity. We just have to come out and match their intensity and match their physicalnes. They kind of make you elevate how physical you play, because you get banged around so much and you can't lay off."
The Shock are as talented a team as there is in the WNBA, with good shooters outside and a strong, rebounding force on the glass. Shock All-Star forward led the WNBA in rebounding this season and averaged more than 10 rebounds per game against the Fever in their regular season games.
"Number on, you always have to worry about their physical size. They're long and tall, you have to defend and rebound well and you can't let them get to the free throw line too much," Winter listed as his keys to the series. "I don't know if there's any one thing we can do, but there are a bunch of things. If we play well and compete, then it will be a knockdown, drag-out series and will go to the team that probably makes the least mistakes."
In order for the Fever to move on to the Conference Finals, they will need the same balance and depth they had all season.
"As a whole team, we need to have a big series, but specifically I'd have to say Tamika (Whitmore) needs to play well," Catchings said. "She stepped up the biggest as far as offensively and defensively for us this season. I also think Ebony (Hoffman) has to have a great defensive game, whether or not she scores is not as important. And I think she will."