As the clock wound down in Sunday night’s game between the Indiana Fever and the New York Liberty, Shenise Johnson did what she’s done all season. Johnson went to her right, got a pick and calmly rose into a jumpshot.
She buried it.
The shot gave Indiana the lead it needed to edge out the East-leading Liberty, 80-79, but the significance of the win was much larger than just a grind-it-out victory over one of the hottest teams in the league. It moved Indiana to 9-1 since the All-Star break and, more importantly, within one game of first place in the Eastern Conference.
Defense has long been the calling card of the Indiana Fever, but the team’s success this season has come through a free-flowing and rejuvenated offensive attack. Their offensive rating of 103.5 is second only to the Chicago Sky and head coach Stephanie White’s squad is shooting a league-best 36.6 percent from deep.
Since the All-Star break the Fever have been even more dominant, beating opponents by an average of 14.1 points per game.
“I think first and foremost we’re healthier than we were to start the season,” White said. “Obviously, at this point in the year nobody is completely healthy, but we’re better off than we were.”
Indiana entered the season with some question marks with White stepping in for legendary coach Lin Dunn and a roster that was welcoming some new faces. They did have the benefit, however, of relying on the one constant for the franchise year in and year out since 2002. Tamika Catchings will play. Tamika Catchings will shine. Build the roster around her and the rest will play itself.
“Anything that you’ve seen from our team over the last few weeks is a direct result of Tamika Catchings’ attitude,” said White. “The grittiness, the toughness, doing the intangibles, playing hard, the competitiveness. All of those things are because of our leader. It’s because of Tamika Catchings.”
“She’s literally been there and done that,” added Johnson. “She kind of lets us know what’s coming up, when to lock in and focus a little bit more to try to cancel out some of the distractions. Just taking everything one game at a time, one practice at a time, one 24-second shot clock at a time and Tamika does a great job of leading us.”
But Catchings isn’t the only reason for Indiana’s success. They’ve gotten significant contributions from the entire rotation. Marissa Coleman is averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game and was named to her first All-Star team this past July. Natalie Achonwa has excelled during her first season in the league. Lynetta Kizer is playing more minutes than she has throughout her entire career, and her production has spiked as a result.
And then there’s Shenise Johnson. Now in her fourth year in the league, she’s emerged as one of the more improved players and, well, could be a candidate for that award at the end of the season. Johnson is averaging career highs in three-point field goal percentage (41.4), field goal percentage (47.4) and points per game (11.3).
Those are the numbers that stick out when you look at Johnson’s stats, but her defensive improvements have not gone unnoticed. A sequence earlier in the season during a nationally–televised game showed off Johnson’s defensive acumen perfectly.
Johnson was sporting a bandage over her left eye to cover up a gash that required stitches earlier in the game. As that night’s opponent, the Phoenix Mercury, set up their offense, Johnson got into the passing lane and poked the ball away, sending it hurling towards the sidelines. Johnson took off after it and kept it in play by throwing it behind her back just before nearly crashing into the stands.
“She’s found a comfort level,” White said of Johnson. “I think the biggest improvement has been on defense. She values defense. She’s a tremendous one-on-one defender. She’s very good in our rotations. Early it was a struggle for her in our defensive system. Since she’s really bought in to the fact that defense is what first and foremost gets you on the floor, and she’s been a tremendous defender. I think her improvement on the defensive end of the floor, I think her natural ability offensively is really starting to shine, and she feels more comfortable. She really brings and added dimension to our team, and we’re very fortunate to have her and I’m very proud of the way that she’s continued to progress.”
For Johnson, her growth has been a product of just getting a shot to perform.
“Honestly, opportunity is everything,” Johnson said. “Coach [Stephanie White] kind of has a free-flowing offense, and I’m just trying my best to be aggressive. I just feel like I have more of an opportunity here and coach really believes in my abilities as a player.”
As the playoff race intensifies down the home stretch of the regular season, the Fever are looking to make the postseason for the 11th-straight season. A mere three games separate first place from fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and players from every squad know what lies ahead.
“I think we’re all aware of what’s going on,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty sure every team in the Eastern Conference is, but we try to focus on one game at a time, one opponent at a time, one defensive scout as a time. Because when Indiana is playing defense we’re at our best, so we just try to focus on that.”
However it plays out, the Fever are showing that they’re once again poised to be a tough out for any team they may face.