Reflecting on 2012's Amazing Run
By Tom Rietmann
INDIANAPOLIS -- Lin Dunn, sitting at her desk in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, paused and collected her thoughts. She pondered a question about the WNBA championship that her Indiana Fever team won seven-plus weeks ago. She smiled.
“Sometimes I go, 'Did we really win? Did that really happen?' It's still kind of amazing and overwhelming,” Dunn said.
“A first championship is always very, very special,” the Fever coach continued. “I don't know that anything can take the place of doing it for the first time. How we were able to do it perhaps makes it even more special. No one, absolutely no one, picked us to win the WNBA championship. Doing something that nobody thinks you can do is even more wonderful.”
Dunn is back in town this week after taking time to relax in her home state of Tennessee, travel to New York and see five Broadway plays and head to Georgia to view some college basketball. The Fever's 2012 championship run, which brought Indianapolis its first professional basketball title since the Pacers' last ABA crown in 1973, made Dunn's travels and decompression time even more enjoyable.
The coach took a half-hour recently to reflect on the season and relive significant developments that made the team's stirring run possible. There were many -- from Tamika Catchings' MVP performance in the WNBA Finals … to the stunning rebounding of Erlana Larkins that ignited Indiana … to the way the entire team stepped up in the absence of injured standout Katie Douglas during the Finals.
The 65-year-old Dunn also talked about what the title meant to her and her career. Mostly, she talked about the pride she has in her coaching assistants -- Stephanie White and Mickie DeMoss. It's a staff that drew up all the right X's and O's, adjusted nicely to injuries and adapted well to adversity throughout the season and playoffs.
“The word 'satisfying' is not strong enough,” Dunn said about the Fever's 2012 crown. “This has got to be the top of the bucket list right now.”
Dunn also talked about her future with the franchise.
“I know for sure I'm going to coach next year,” she said. “I've already committed to come back. I'm going to take it one year at a time. I enjoy what I do. One of the reasons I enjoy what I do is because of the people I work with at Pacers Sports & Entertainment.”
Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's president and general manager, echoed Dunn's comments about the joy of sharing the 2012 title with everybody in the organization as well as fans around Indianapolis.
“So much of your career is built around this quest -- the desire to be the best,” Krauskopf said. “It's just such a sense of happiness and joy for everybody who's involved along the way. No one's in this alone. It's been fun to lead the charge, but this is everybody in our organization. It was so fun to share that with them.”
The Fever finished the regular season at 22-12, winning an eighth consecutive playoff berth and holding the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. But Indiana's 2012 postseason started with a thud in the form of a 75-66 home loss to Atlanta.
That's when Dunn decided to move Larkins into the starting lineup. “Larkins the Lion,” as her teammates call her, had shown she could be a strong rebounder, but the best was still to come. She emerged to average 10.9 rebounds in the playoffs, including collecting 48 in four games against Minnesota in the Finals.
“I think there was a turning point after we lost that first game to Atlanta,” Dunn said. “I knew that rebounding was going to be the key. I just felt like I had my best rebounder sitting on the bench, waiting to get in the game.”
The switch to Larkins as a starter set a new tone and signaled, according to Dunn, that “we're going to be a terror on the boards.”
Larkins had sat out the 2010 and 2011 WNBA seasons. Teams didn't think she was skilled enough for the world's top women's basketball league. But Krauskopf played a hunch and signed Larkins for 2012.
“When she came in, she said she just wanted a chance,” Krauskopf said. “And then it goes from wanting a chance to being so critical to us winning a championship. I think that's just a great story line right there, and it shows a lot of players who are still looking to get on teams that that kind of thing is possible.”
With Larkins' help, Indiana stormed back to win the best-of-three Atlanta series, 2-1. Then came Connecticut, the conference's top seed. The Fever fell in the opener of that series, too, but something happened in Game 2 to alter the course of the playoffs.
Shavonte Zellous' 16-foot jumper in the final second elevated Indiana to a 78-76 victory at the Fieldhouse. Briann January made it possible, diving to keep a loose ball from going out of bounds before dishing to Zellous. From there, the Fever traveled to Connecticut for the deciding Game 3 with an undeniable resolve and excitement.
“I think (Connecticut was) stunned that we were able to do that,” Dunn said about the Game 2 victory. “We carried that momentum in a positive way into (the final game). I feel like (Connecticut) carried the disappointment, the frustration of allowing that to happen because we out-hustled them on that last play.”
The Fever closed out the Sun with a dominating 87-71 victory. And the Indiana players did it, for the most part, without Douglas, who suffered a serious ankle injury early in the game. Douglas, averaging 13.3 points in the playoffs, would miss the rest of the postseason except for a celebratory 3.2 seconds of the close-out Finals victory over Minnesota.
“I don't know if Connecticut relaxed a little bit when they saw Katie down, but we certainly did just the opposite,” Dunn said. “Instead of us being discouraged, we really took it to another level.”
That pattern continued in the Finals. The Fever rose to the occasion.
Erin Phillips played both guard positions and kept burying 3-pointers, hitting 15-of-29 (.519) in the postseason. Zellous, who averaged 7.5 points during the regular season, produced a 17-point average during the Finals. Larkins twice grabbed 15 rebounds -- one off the Finals' single-game record -- in the series against Minnesota.
Indiana won the best-of-five Finals over the Lynx, 3-1. In Game 4, January turned in a defensive effort for the ages, holding Lynx star Seimone Augustus to 3-of-21 shooting from the field. And Catchings, embracing her 2012 switch from small forward to power forward, continued to make enormous contributions and produce box score-stuffing numbers (22.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists during the Finals).
In the wake of Catchings' position change, the Fever coaching staff had her operating mostly from the center of the floor and away from the wings.
“You can't underestimate how that affected our offensive and defensive performance,” Dunn said. “That was a huge plus for us. She was much harder to guard. Defenses couldn't load up.
“It was that and the way our team made improvements during the Olympic break, especially in rebounding, that really became big turning points for us.”
When the 2012 campaign officially ended in late October, and after all the confetti had fallen and the fans had celebrated with a thundering rally at the Fieldhouse, most of Indiana's players had to quickly depart to fulfill commitments to overseas teams.
“I wish the players could have stuck around a little longer so the championship could sink in even more,” Krauskopf said. “When you can live in your market and stay in your market when you've won a championship for your city, you can experience what the next two months are, not just the day after. That's when it really sinks in.”