Balanced Fever attack prepares for Sun

By Tom Rietmann

INDIANAPOLIS -- They have typically been known as the Indiana Fever's supporting cast. Each player possesses solid talents. Each has contributed in her own way to an Indiana team that ranks among the most successful in WNBA history.

Lately, however, some of those support and role players have blossomed into scoring and rebounding stars for the Fever.

Second-seeded Indiana, having advanced to its fifth Eastern Conference finals in eight years, will begin play in a best-of-three series Friday night against top-seeded Connecticut. Discerning exactly how the Fever arrived at this point is simple. It stems from some standout performances recently from players other than Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, old reliables who have shouldered the team load for years.

There's an undeniable balance about the new-look Fever.

After losing the opener of the conference semifinals at home to Atlanta, Indiana righted itself and won two straight games against the Dream. In Game 2 of the series, six of the seven Fever players who saw action scored in double figures. In Tuesday night's elimination game, four of seven players hit double digits.

“It's a sense of being in attack mode,” said point guard Briann January, who missed the last three games of the regular season with concussion symptoms but has made up for lost time. “Everybody is looking to be the aggressor.

“We want to make the defense be on their toes. Everybody on our team has confidence in each other. We're telling everybody, 'When you get the ball and you're open, shoot it.' Everybody has that green light. It puts pressure on a defense.”

Nobody is applying more pressure to defenses than January. The fourth-year pro is averaging 16.7 points and 5.0 assists in the 2012 postseason. Coach Lin Dunn said January's time off at season's end might have helped her recover from simply being “pretty beat up” after 31 games.

“I think she is playing at a pace now that's at the highest level I've seen,” Dunn said. “(It is) just her decision-making, how she's handling the basketball and shooting.”

Erin Phillips moved into the starting backcourt with January two games ago, and they make a formidable tandem offensively and defensively. Also, Dunn elevated 6-foot-1 Erlana Larkins into a starting front-line position opposite Catchings.

Larkins responded with a game for the ages as the Fever closed out Atlanta, 75-64, on Tuesday night. She grabbed 20 rebounds, tying for the second-best mark in WNBA postseason history, and added 16 points. Larkins is averaging a postseason double-double of 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds and is giving the Fever another physical presence to go with Catchings.

“She's a blue-collar player,” Douglas said about Larkins. “She's a gritty player. She's just tough. In the years past, it's always been Tamika having to spearhead that blue-collar mentality. And I think it takes a little pressure off of Tamika. (Larkins) can go down there and bang. It really loosens things up for us.”

Larkins' success proves that resolve and persistence can pay off. She spent two years on the WNBA sidelines before signing with Indiana for the 2012 season. During her summers off, she kept working, kept pushing at a fitness center in Chapel Hill, N.C., with hopes of returning to the league.

“You have to give (Fever General Manager) Kelly Krauskopf credit,” Dunn said about the team discovering Larkins. “(Larkins) was a free agent, floating around with not a whole lot of teams giving her a lot of interest.

“Kelly brought her name up and talked about what a great rebounder she was at New York (with the Liberty in 2008-09) and the University of North Carolina. We decided to bring her into camp. From the the first day of camp, we knew she was something special. Her energy, her effort, a nose for the basketball -- she's one of the greatest rebounders I've ever seen. And she's improved her offensive skills.”

Catchings, one of Larkins' biggest fans, also has become a mentor.

“To be down there banging with the best of them, (Larkins' attitude) flows to the whole team,” Catchings said.

Catchings struggled early in the Atlanta series but is now averaging a team-leading 17 points and 11.7 rebounds in the 2012 playoffs. Douglas came back from a difficult Game 2 to score a game-high 24 points in the series finale.

Catchings and Douglas continue to play at a lofty level. January and Larkins are emerging. Phillips, Shavonte Zellous and Tammy Sutton-Brown have provided significant time as Dunn relied on the seven-player rotation in the past two games.

“(The overall contributions have) really balanced our franchise, and I think that really helps,” Dunn said.

Added Douglas: “I think that Tamika and I definitely realize that we can't win it by ourselves. We need each person. As long as we stay balanced, we're a very hard team to beat.”

Now comes the Sun, led by league MVP Tina Charles, who succeeded 2011 winner Catchings. Charles averaged 21 points and 8.5 rebounds as Connecticut topped New York in two games in the conference semifinals. Larkins likely will match up against Charles.

Asjha Jones averaged 15 playoff points and Kara Lawson 11.5 for the Sun.

“I think again, (the Connecticut series is) going to be rebounding,” Dunn said after the Fever outrebounded Atlanta by a 46-25 margin, not including team rebounds, in Game 3.

“They're a fine team,” Dunn said about the Sun. “They're going to start at home. They're going to be rested. Let's just hope that they are over-rested.

“I think, at the end of the day, if we can defend at a high level, continue to do what we've done on the boards and be balanced in our scoring, then we have a chance to steal this series.”