Bench is the big story at halfway mark

By Tom Rietmann | July 12, 2010

As the Indiana Fever begins the second half of the WNBA regular season, the team will continue to rely on a cast of players off the bench whom coach Lin Dunn refers to as the squad's “young legs.”

Indiana's reserves rank as the club's No. 1 success story at the midway point of the 2010 season. Star forward Tamika Catchings is their biggest fan, repeatedly calling them “the best bench in the league.” The subs have accounted for nearly 36 percent of the Fever's points (468 of 1,302) in an 11-6 start.

“This is by far the best bench we've had since I've been part of the Fever,” said Dunn, who has been with the team since 2004 as an assistant or head coach. “I'm thinking back on my years in the pros and colleges, and I don't think I've ever had an opportunity to coach a team with as strong of a bench.”

Indiana, with nine wins in the last 12 games, has a firm grip on third place in the Eastern Conference. The team will start the second half this week with a pair of home games – against Connecticut (10-8) in a matinee game on Wednesday and against conference-leading Atlanta (14-5) on Friday night. For Indiana, the WNBA's third-oldest team with four starters at 30 years or older, nothing will change in the plan to use reserves early and often.

Dunn keeps a close watch on the starters' minutes, hoping to keep them fresh for the postseason as the team attempts to repeat as conference champion and return to the WNBA Finals. So far, so good. Catchings and Katie Douglas, the top two scorers, both average under 30 minutes per game and appear strong.

Formidable performances by the subs have made that possible. Briann January, Shavonte Zellous and Jene Morris, all 23 years old, have played nicely at the guard and wing positions and push the gas pedal on the team's developing fast break. January has been especially effective in the past two games, showing no ill effects from an early-season knee injury and totaling 11 assists and nine rebounds. Jessica Moore and Jessica Davenport, the first inside players off the bench, provide instant energy.

In a 100-72 victory over Tulsa just before the weekend's All-Star break, the Indiana bench accounted for a franchise-record 50 points. The reserves have scored 30 or more six times in 2010, already matching the most in any season in franchise history.

“You just feel comfortable about any one of them coming into the game at any time, and sometimes with all of them in the game at once,” Dunn said.

As the Fever attempts to move up the conference standings in the second half and gain home-court advantage in the playoffs, here are other developments and trends to watch:

  • THE FRIENDLY CONFINES: The Fever plays seven of its next 10 games at Conseco Fieldhouse, where it has won seven in a row. All told, nine of the final 17 regular-season games are at home. “We had a nice break, and we're going into the start of the 'second season' at home against two very good teams in Connecticut and Atlanta,” Dunn said. “So we have to be re-focused.”

  • DEFENSIVE PROWESS: Playing high-level defense is in the Fever's blood. Dunn makes sure of it. Indiana is No. 1 in the league in two important categories. Its opponents average only 70.24 points per game while shooting only 39.9 percent from the field.

  • OFFENSE WARMING UP: The win over Tulsa represented only the second triple-digit scoring performance for the Fever in franchise history. Maybe it's the beginning of something. When January and Morris are on the floor together, the fast break reaches another speed. And more movement has led to more open 3-pointers. Douglas, who won the 3-point contest at the WNBA All-Star Weekend, has hit 8 of her last 15 in Fever games, and Indiana has moved to No. 2 in the league with a 37.8 percent mark from the the arc.

  • SECOND-CHANCE WOES: On the negative ledger for the Fever is a continuing habit of giving up offensive rebounds. The last three opponents each have totaled 12, using the second-chance opportunities to score 20, eight and 16 points. “For some reason,” Dunn said, “we've never been what I would call a great rebounding team. But we need to be at least in the middle of the pack. I don't think we've valued boxing out, holding our man out, like we should. If you look at the six games we've lost, we possibly could have won three of them if we had done a better job on the boards.”