Notable Stretch Looms for Fever

By Tom Rietmann | September 13, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Fever, holding the second seed in the WNBA Eastern Conference but pursuing No. 1, faces an enormous and important challenge over the next three games.

The Fever will play the Minnesota Lynx, the defending league champions and 2012's top seed in the Western Conference, on Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The two clubs will meet again Monday night in Minnesota. Then Indiana travels to Connecticut to take on the Eastern Conference-leading Sun.

The trio of games will weigh heavily on Indiana's final seeding in the East. If the Fever (20-9) can leap-frog Connecticut (22-8), it will guarantee home-court advantage in the conference finals to go with the home edge that Indiana already holds for the semifinals.

Also, a strong Indiana performance over this significant span could inject a major dose of confidence with the postseason looming.

“I think we all understand the sense of urgency,” said Fever assistant coach Stephanie White. “We understand who we're playing and we understand the capabilities of the teams we are playing.

“But we approach it like any other game. We know we have to come out and play hard and do what we do defensively. We have to be able to knock down shots. At this point in the season, it's about finishing ball games and positioning yourself for the best possible scenario once the playoffs start.”

Indiana is 10-2 since the Olympics break, ranking as the hottest team in the league behind Minnesota (24-5 this season and 9-1 since the break). The Fever keeps uncovering new ways to win, especially when field goal attempts aren't falling. Four of the team's 20 victories have come when it has shot 36.3 percent or worse.

Sometimes, Indiana's defense smothers opponents. Phoenix and Seattle combined for 51 turnovers against the Fever in the past two games as Indiana totaled 30 steals.

Also, Indiana has held five of its last 12 opponents to scoring in the 60s. The Fever really put the wraps on Seattle, which managed just 48 points, one more than the WNBA's 2012 season low.

“One thing we can always rely on is our defense,” said Tammy Sutton-Brown, the Fever's veteran center. “It's one of those cliché terms, but it's so true: Defense wins championships.”

Rebounding does, too. Sutton-Brown needs just two more boards for 2,000 in her pro career. The Fever, which made rebounding improvement a priority during the break, has outrebounded five opponents since then and won all five games.

Hitting 3-pointers also has been an escape hatch for Indiana. Often, even when the Fever struggles to make layups, it manages to connect consistently on 3-pointers.

With 240 3-pointers this season, Indiana needs only 44 more in its last five regular-season games to eclipse the WNBA's record. Fever guard Katie Douglas is red-hot from the arc, having hit 33-of-66 for a 50 percent mark in her last 11 games. With eight more treys, Douglas will join Seattle's Katie Smith and Phoenix's Diana Taurasi as the only WNBA players to make 80 or more in a season.

Finding ways to win, said Fever guard Erin Phillips, has been “a theme for this team, and we definitely rely on it. We work to find a way.”

White echoed Phillips' words and pointed to the club's experience and resilience.

“The good thing about our team is they're a veteran group,” the assistant coach said. “They understand the league, and they understand the sense of urgency of where we are through each piece of the season.”

Representing an important piece of the 2012 season will be the next two games against Minnesota, the league's dominant club for two years. It will be a good barometer of the Fever's playoff readiness. Factoring in the Connecticut game and its conference ramifications gives Indiana's players more to ponder.

“We're excited to play the leaders,” Phillips said. “For us, it's a way to measure ourselves. We're really looking forward to it.”

The Fever is preparing for Minnesota as if standout guard Seimone Augustus will play. Augustus, who averages a Lynx-leading 17.2 points, sat out the past two games with a sprained foot. Maya Moore (16.2), Rebekkah Brunson (12.6) and Lindsay Whalen (11.3) provide the Lynx with plenty of scoring and other skills.

“They don't have a weakness,” said White, who does much of Indiana's scouting and spent time at Thursday's practice demonstrating Lynx sets. “They have players at multiple positions who are versatile, who can shoot, who can drive, who can find their open teammates. At the same time, they're human. They're a team that can have off nights, and we're a team that understands how to play teams like that.

“Minnesota is certainly very talented. They're very athletic, quick and have a lot of weapons. But we do, too. And we have to come out and play our game without thinking too much about everything that they have.”

Phillips summed it up.

“We want to keep winning and gain momentum for the playoffs,” she said. “Two games with Minnesota and then at Connecticut -- what better way to start that off?”