The Indiana Fever had been there before. The season starts and already there's a two game deficit to climb out of. Last season, when the team opened with losses to Atlanta and Minnesota, they responded with an 11 game win streak. This season, they've already clawed their way up the standings and are back in the hunt for a second Eastern Conference championship, a goal they hope will propel them to their first WNBA title.
"There was no panic stations whatsoever," says veteran point guard Tully Bevilaqua of the slow start. "Circumstances are different this year -- four starters coming back one day before the season started. We were going to be a little bit shaky in terms of team chemistry, fatigue. It's definitely by no means panic stations."
Overseas commitments delayed the Indiana Fever's reunion. Stars Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas, Ebony Hoffman, and Tammy Sutton-Brown all played in international leagues during the offseason and those leagues did not finish their playoffs in time for the players to join training camp. So Bevilaqua and her protégé, Briann January, spent camp practicing with teammates battling for a spot on the roster. With the starters back in Indianapolis, Bevilaqua hopes the team's familiarity with each other will expedite the rebuilding of chemistry.
"In a season like the WNBA you don't have a lot of time to come together," she says. "Hopefully in the next week or two you will see [team chemistry] transforming into wins out on the court after we get some more practices together."
While Indiana's starters reacquaint themselves with their teammates, the team has found a couple of pleasant surprises early in the season in the form of Shay Murphy and first round draft pickJene Morris.
Last year Murphy averaged just 4.2 ppg. After a summer of workouts and practice, Murphy has returned determined to be a part of the Fever's regular rotation of players. "Shay Murphy has come back and shown she's ready to get more minutes out on the court," Bevilaqua says. "Offensively she's gained more confidence and she's also improved defensively during the offseason. I think she's been a revelation coming into training camp and the start of the season."
During a pair of games against the Chicago Sky May 22 and 23, Murphy nearly recorded back-to-back double-doubles in points and rebounds -- a rare feat in Fever history. In Chicago, she scored 20 points and added 10 rebounds. The next night back home she led the team in scoring with 16 points and pulled down nine boards. Three consecutive fast break Murphy lay-ups during the game gave the Fever a lead they never relinquished.
Morris chose the game to make a statement as well. She sat on the bench in Chicago but back in Indianapolis she went five of six from the field for 12 points. "Now you know why we drafted her," said head coach Lin Dunn in the postgame press conference.
Playing the point
Last season began with rookie Briann January as the Fever's starting point guard. After the first two losses, Bevilaqua regained her starting spot. During the playoffs, January showed a maturity rarely seen in rookies, even playing a key role in game three of the WNBA Finals, scoring 17 points. "She showed during the final stretch she had gained the coach's confidence," says Bevilaqua. "She was in those games in key moments playing good minutes and I think she has transferred that confidence into this season."
As Bevilaqua said, there was no panic when the Fever opened the season with two losses. January retained her job as starting point guard while Bevilaqua, an 11-year WNBA veteran, comes off the bench.
Her relationship with January "is still pretty much the same as how we finished the season last year," Bevilaqua says. "We have a very good relationship. We are very supportive of one another. We push each other at practice to make each other better. If I see things out there I'll mention it to her and she takes everything onboard. When one of us is on the court the other is ready to go. I think we have a very good understanding between ourselves."
The transition also pays dividends when the Fever's second unit comes in. Bevilaqua is most often out on the floor leading them. And if things get tough, Bevilaqua and January play both guard spots together, as they did against the Sky on May 23.
The Fever returns this week for their first home games in 11 days. First up, on June 3, is the new look San Antonio Silver Stars. Two years removed from a WNBA Finals appearance, the Silver Stars gave Becky Hammon much needed help by signing center Michelle Snow and forward ChamiqueHoldsclaw, a former Olympian. During her debut she scored 17 points and led the Silver Stars to a win. Her addition to the team makes an already crowded Western Conference more challenging, an aspect that might pay dividends for the Fever when playoff time rolls around. If San Antonio, Phoenix and Seattle beat each other up throughout the season it could open the possibility of an Eastern Conference team grabbing home court advantage for the WNBA Finals. Fans can only wonder how the 2009 Finals may have played out had Indiana not squandered home court advantage in the final weeks of the regular season.
Saturday, June 5, CappiePondexter leads the New York Liberty into Conseco Fieldhouse. The Fever know what a challenge guarding Pondexter can be. They struggled to shut her down during the WNBA Finals before an offseason trade sent her east. Now Pondexter has the job of rejuvenating the Liberty, a perennial Eastern Conference champion in the league's early days. "Obviously with CappiePondexter going to New York and being the face of the team now they are a really potent line up," Bevilaqua says. "They've had a bit of a mixed start but they have the firepower to shoot the lights out on any given night."
"For [New York] this was a key move to try to take that next step," she says. "That puts more pressure on us and the other teams. And that's great. It's a challenge. She's a world-class player and to try to stop her is a huge challenge. But it's also something you look forward to as well."
San Antonio and New York will test the Fever's mettle. And it will be an opportunity to see how the team has gelled. With so many big changes in the league over the offseason, many teams are currently looking for cohesiveness on the court. But the Fever has one advantage: nine of its 11 players were on last year's team. Chemistry should not be a question of if it will develop but a question of when. And once that's in place, once all the players are on the same page, then a championship may not be far behind.
Home games at Conseco