By Wheat Hotchkiss
Right when the Indiana Fever seems to have turned the corner, snapping out of a seven-game losing streak and rattling off two wins over the weekend, the team hits one of the longest scheduling lulls of the season, a six day break before their next game on Saturday night against Connecticut.
The layoff isn’t the worst thing in the world for the Fever’s injury-depleted roster, but for Fever fans excited by the team’s turnaround, six days without a game is a bit of a bummer. To satisfy your Fever fervor, here’s a potpourri of mid-week notes on the team from this week’s practice.
Rest Rejuvenates Catchings
Tamika Catchings didn’t want to sit out two games, not with the Fever already under-manned and mired in a five-game losing streak. But Catchings’ lower back strain got to the point where it was significantly hurting her play, so the team decided to shut its star down, absorbing two more losses in the process.
Since sitting out that stretch, Catchings has played her best ball of the year. In Friday’s win over Tulsa, Catchings stuffed the stat sheet, scoring a season-high 28 points to go along with five rebounds, three assists, six steals and four blocks (all that plus no turnovers). In Sunday’s victory over Seattle, Catchings followed up with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists, filling in at point guard in the second half following Briann January’s concussion.
“I think the fact that we gave her ten days off with her back, you could see the difference,” Dunn said. “…She did look like her old self this past weekend.”
With her back feeling better, Catchings has been more aggressive offensively. After getting to the free throw line less than four times per game in her first six contests, Catchings attempted nine free throws in each of the Fever’s victories over the weekend. She finished the weekend a perfect 18-for-18 from the charity stripe.
Catchings’ return has rubbed off on the rest of the team, as Indiana put together two solid games collectively.
“She’s our leader…You know what she’s going to bring to the game,” Fever forward Karima Christmas said. “It gets everybody else more confident and more comfortable when we’re out there on the floor.”
Breland Providing Unexpected Boost
At the beginning of the season, Jessica Breland playing a major role for the Fever seemed about as unlikely as the team running out of point guards. Strangely enough, both of those things have happened.
Breland didn’t play in the WNBA last year. Her WNBA career spanned just 13 games with New York and Connecticut in 2011. But suddenly, she’s a major contributor for the defending champions.
After scoring just eight points total in limited minutes over the first five games, Breland’s role has increased dramatically over the past five games. It all started with a solid performance in the loss at Washington: six points and seven rebounds in just nine minutes. Over the last four games, Breland has averaged 22.3 minutes, eight points, and 7.3 rebounds per contest. The feisty forward out of North Carolina started the Chicago game in place of the injured Catchings.
“I look at it like a blessing,” Breland said. “Every day I wake up and I’m just thanking God for this opportunity. “
Breland said one of the biggest things she tries to bring to games is energy and nowhere was that more on display than on Sunday. Breland recorded her first career double-double in the win over Seattle, finishing with 10 points and 10 rebounds, seven of them coming on the offensive end. A few of those offensive rebounds came off her own misses, which led to a little teasing from her teammates, even though Breland eventually got the ball in the hoop.
“Just going in there getting rebounds,” Breland said about her mindset Sunday. “My teammates pick on me because I was kind of bagging my own groceries, but I was trying to put the ball in.”
Dunn praised Breland specifically, along with the rest of the healthy players, for continuing to battle amidst so much adversity.
“I just think our players are doing a super job adapting to what we have to adapt to,” Dunn said Wednesday. “No excuses, figure out a way to win with what you’ve got.”
A Year Later, Christmas Playing Bigger Role
Tuesday marked exactly one year since Karima Christmas was traded to the Fever, and what a ride it’s been. Last year, Christmas played a small role on a title team, stepping up her minutes in the WNBA Finals after injuries to Katie Douglas and Jeanette Pohlen. This season, more injuries have forced Christmas into a starting role, and she’s responded by playing the best basketball of her career.
“I’m starting, so my role’s having to change, I need to be more of an offensive threat,” Christmas said Tuesday. “But I think I’m handling the role pretty well. I’m just coming in here and trying to bring energy and what I’ve been doing before I got here.”
Christmas said she’s drawn from her college days at Duke, where she was asked to carry a heavier load. Christmas averaged 2.9 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.9 minutes per game last season. This year, she’s boosted those averages to 7.6 points and 4.3 rebounds in 24.8 minutes per game. Christmas has started the past five games and scored nine or more points in each of those contests. She posted her first career double-double last Tuesday, with 16 points and 10 rebounds in a loss at Atlanta. She then scored 12 points in each of the Fever’s wins over the weekend.
“I think Karima Christmas, you look at her last four or five games, and you just see her every single game getting better,” Fever star Tamika Catchings said.
Christmas has also started to contribute in other ways. The third-year forward has shown tenacity defensively (she’s averaging 1.9 steals per game) and the ability to knock down the long-range shot (shooting 42.1 percent from 3-point range).
Fever coach Lin Dunn said Christmas’ defense on Seattle Storm guard Temeka Johnson in the second half of Sunday’s game was a major factor in the team’s 71-63 win. Christmas has made a real case with her contributions across the board to continue to receive major minutes even after injured players like Pohlen, Douglas, and Erin Phillips return to Indiana’s lineup.
“Defending, rebounding, taking her open shots, she’s helping us in a lot of different ways,” Dunn said about Christmas.
Fever Keying on Tina Charles
There’s been a clear emphasis in Fever practice this week on defense. And defending Connecticut starts and ends with containing Tina Charles. The 6-foot-4 center had her way with Indiana on June 12, erupting for 30 points and 10 rebounds on 13-of-17 shooting.
Dunn and her staff spent 15-20 minutes at the end of practice both Tuesday and Wednesday emphasizing the game plan for defending Charles, pushing her off the block and sending double teams. Dunn said the Fever did “such a poor job” last time limiting Charles’ touches in the paint.
“I thought overall we played a good enough game to beat them even though we were injured, but we just did not do a good job on Tina Charles,” Dunn said Wednesday. “So that’s a real focus this week.”
Dunn, Breland, and Christmas all stated that the biggest thing with Charles is to make her a passer rather than a scorer. The Fever’s lack of size in the post to counteract Charles (6-foot-1 Erlana Larkins is the Fever’s tallest starter) makes it especially important for Indiana to quickly send double teams Charles’ way.
“She got really comfortable in the (June 12) game, we didn’t put enough pressure on her,” Christmas said. “So (we need) to make her come out of her comfort zone, put some doubles on her.”
“This week we’ve been working a lot on double teaming and trapping and stuff like that,” Breland echoed. “We’ve got to make everybody else work. She had a great game (against) us and we let her see the basket too much.”
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