Gaining a balance
By Tom Rietmann
“Timing is everything,” said Tammy Sutton-Brown. Then she flashed a smile that conveyed satisfaction with the precision timing currently on display from herself and the Indiana Fever.
Sutton-Brown, Indiana's veteran center, is playing her best basketball of the season. After some uneven performances through the team's first 26 games, Sutton-Brown is averaging 17.6 points and five rebounds over the last three games.
It's no coincidence that Indiana (19-10), sparked by the renewed inside presence of Sutton-Brown and her teammates, has won three straight games and will clinch a WNBA Playoffs position with one more victory (or one Connecticut loss). That could come Friday night when the Phoenix Mercury visit Conseco Fieldhouse for a rematch of teams that met in last year's WNBA Finals.
“This is a perfect time for us to be peaking as a team,” Sutton-Brown said, referring to the five-game stretch remaining before the start of the postseason on Aug. 25.
The recent performances of the 6-4 Sutton-Brown have enabled the Fever to gain a foothold in the lane. She is getting help from backup center Jessica Davenport, who has been a consistent force most of the season. Power forward Ebony Hoffman has ratcheted up her intensity, too, on both ends of the floor.
More than at any time this season, Indiana is flexing its muscles around the basket.
“It's really changed the dynamic for us and is the reason we're in first place (in the Eastern Conference),” Hoffman said. “We're just trying to keep this train rolling.”
The Fever, down in the pack in WNBA rebounding statistics, has outrebounded each of its opponents in the winning streak. Indiana scored 44 points in the paint in a win over Atlanta and 50 in a victory at Phoenix.
Coach Lin Dunn has often talked about an “inside-outside” balance. Her team is moving closer to that, especially with the strong offensive play of Sutton-Brown. Indiana's ball-handlers look to the big players under the basket and probe there first before relying on a perimeter shot.
“When we go inside-outside like that, it opens things up for the perimeters,” Sutton-Brown said. “When we attack and have that inside presence, defenses start collapsing and the outside looks are better.”
As Dunn notes, Katie Douglas and the Fever's other 3-point shooters will always benefit from a balanced offense that looks inside first.
“People drop off of Katie now to help inside, and when we kick it back out, she has a better shot,” Dunn said. “I'm just a believer in balance.”
For Sutton-Brown, a long-time standout in the professional ranks, there's a look of rejuvenation lately. The 32-year-old veteran moved right from a long season in Turkey to the 2010 WNBA schedule, and that took its toll. But when the Fever held a team meeting a couple of weeks ago in the wake of a three-game losing streak, the players talked about rekindling their passion, and Sutton-Brown emerged as a leader in the movement.
“I think with Tammy it seems there is a sense of urgency,” Dunn said. “She wants to win another Eastern Conference championship. She wants another shot at winning the (WNBA) title.”
-- Davenport, who suffered a broken nose when she was elbowed by Diana Taurasi in Indiana's win at Phoenix on Aug. 8, has been wearing a protective mask and might be donning a newer, custom-fit model for Friday's rematch against the Mercury. Taurasi was charged with a technical foul on the play, and the WNBA later changed it to a “Flagrant 2” foul. After the Fever's practice on Thursday, Davenport downplayed the incident and said about Friday's game: “I just want to win the game. What happened was unfortunate and unnecessary, really. We just have to go out and win.”
-- Fever forward Tamika Catchings, like Sutton-Brown, indicated the team is peaking at a good time. “It just seems like the focus is going up, and I think that's really important for us to continue through the final five games of the regular season,” Catchings said.
-- A victory for the Fever would give the club its fifth 20-win season in six years.
-- If Indiana loses, it could still clinch a playoff spot on Friday if Connecticut loses at home to Seattle. The next opportunity to clinch would be Sunday when the Fever is at Connecticut.