August 4, 2023 

Late-game struggles a microcosm of Indiana Fever season

Fever absolutely must be better in clutch moments going forward

In theory, the Indiana Fever should be happy that in 18 of their 26 games, they have been within five points of their opponent with five or fewer minutes remaining in the game. That means for 35 minutes, Indiana has been battling and within striking distance of victory 18 times.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

Unfortunately, that hasn’t led to results. The Fever are 5-13 in games that feature clutch time, a 27.7% win rate. That’s slightly above their winning percentage for the season, yet underscores how close the team is to having a significantly better record.

“We were just talking about it… we’re only four games out of the playoffs, and we are close, but it feels so far because we are losing those games,” recently-acquired Fever center Amanda Zahui B. said this week. The veteran center said that the team is focusing on themselves in an attempt to get over their late-game struggles.

That’s similar to the messaging that the Fever shared early in the season. They started the season off 4-6, but five of the six losses were by fewer than 10 points — the lone exception being a 17-point blowout in New York. Those five losses were by a combined 24 points, less than five points per game.

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

At the time, Indiana was preaching the little things. They wanted to lock into their gameplan late in games and get stops. That’s how they felt they could turn the tides late in game.

It looked like it was working for a short moment. After an overtime loss in Chicago on June 6, the Indiana Fever won three of their next four games, and two of the wins came by exactly two points — one in Minnesota and the other in Chicago.

But after that, the Fever lost their next seven games that were decided by less than 10 points. They could hang around for nearly a full 40 minutes, but they couldn’t get over the hump.

“We go back and look at them all the time because we try to re-create those in our practices,” head coach Christie Sides said of how the Fever are approaching their late-game woes. “Sometimes, it’s just there’s a lapse. A lot of times, it’s been on the defensive end. We’ve not been able to get those stops that are needed right at the end.”

Sides thinks that experience will help her team understand how to operate in those late game moments and keep up. Young wing Lexie Hull echoed something similar earlier this week.

“I think it’s with experience. We’re playing teams with their whole five out there that have been in that situation hundreds of times in the W… I think with experience, we’ll get better at finishing those out,” she said of how the Fever will improve in close games.

Members of the Indiana Fever stand huddled up in the paint during a WNBA game while some members of the Minnesota Lynx stand behind them at the free-throw line in a huddle, as they all wait before a Lynx takes free-throws.
The Indiana Fever went 3-1 this week, leading the biggest turnaround of the 2023 WNBA season so far. (Photo credit: John McLellan/The Next)

Clutch play is often put under the microscope. It’s easy to define, and it’s a tracked stat. The Fever have not been good at what the WNBA defines as clutch moments.

Zooming out, though, what the team’s struggles late in games really points to is the biggest story of their season — inconsistency. After most of the team’s losses, there is messaging about the important of sticking to a gameplan and playing hard for 40 minutes. Indiana knows they need to do it. The problem is that during most games, they usually are only dialed in for about 35 minutes.

Most young teams have that symptom. Experience is a key component of consistency, as Sides and Hull noted. But dramatic slip ups happens basically every game for the Fever, even in their big wins.

Indiana has two double-digits wins this season — over the Washington Mystics on June 13 and against the Seattle Storm on June 22. Against Washington, the Fever led by eight with three minutes to go in the second quarter, but they trailed by four less than five minutes of game action later. They wound up dominating most of the second half that night, but they had a moment of weakness that cost them an advantage.

In their win over Seattle, the Fever were up by six with 1:08 to go in the first frame. They trailed by three with 9:37 to go in the second quater, which is just 91 seconds of game action later. That stretch was much shorter than most of Indiana’s lapses this season, but it still illustrates their lack of consistency.

In clutch time, Indiana’s inconsistent play is magnified. When the details become more important, the Fever can’t put together consistent good play. That’s been their season in a nutshell — clear signs of improvement and a positive direction butting heads with maddening inconsistency.

“It’s crushing. It’s absolutely crushing,” Sides said of being so close to winning multiple times yet not always getting over the hump.

The ironic part of all this is that the Fever having clutch struggles can actually be viewed as a positive. That certainly sounds strange. But the 2022 Fever got blown out a ton. They weren’t even in games during the final five minutes. They played in just 13 games that featured clutch time last season, but far the fewest in the WNBA.

This year, they already have 18 such games, which tops the league. It hasn’t led to more wins, but the Fever are fighting and competitive in a way they weren’t last year. That’s progress, though it hasn’t led to wins.

“It’s definitely both,” Hull said of the clutch losses being viewed both as a negative and positive. “We hate going into the locker room with a loss, especially the heartbreaking ones that are within points at the end of the game. But I definitely think moving forward, it is encouraging.”

In that way, the Indiana Fever reaching clutch time is a step forwad. It’s reflected in their net rating. The 2022 Fever were -12.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranked last in the league. This year, that number is up to -5.5, which ranks ninth. The team in the Circle City is close to being much better. They just have to finish out games.

“You never want to get blown out by a team. But it’s like a different kind of frustrating or pain when lose by one or two points compared to like losing by 20 or 15,” Zahui B. said. “Both hurts like hell, but it’s just different. And then when you lose by less points, you start… really looking at yourself like ‘what did I do wrong?'”

It’s strange looking at a 5-13 clutch record — and -17.4 net rating in clutch situations, as both a positive and negetive. Simply being competitive should not be enough. But compared to where the Indiana Fever were last season it’s a huge step forward, and their goal of being more consistent every night feels much more attainable now than it did six months ago.

“Every time you say 17 (clutch games), it feels good early, and now it rips your soul at times… we just have to make sure we’re preparing them for that,” Sides said of the positives and negatives of getting to clutch time but falling short. The team’s defense, in particular, has been atrocious late in games.

Perhaps the Fever are turning a corner, though. They just beat the Phoenix Mercury by one point on Tuesday night thanks to a clutch defensive stop, and the team has won two of their last three games that featured clutch time. A Jordin Canada three just before the buzzer in Los Angeles prevented that from being a perfect three-for-three.

Sides was upset that her team didn’t defend the three-point line better during Canada’s triple — her team was up by two, after all. But they cleaned up their defensive focus a few days later and got enough stops to beat Phoenix. General manager Lin Dunn’s feeling of relief was visible when her team got the final stop to secure a win.

Maybe the Indiana Fever are improving their consistency; maybe they are a young team that will slip up again late in an important game. Perhaps they are somewhere in the middle. There is still a lot of season left to play. The Fever need to improve their consistency, especially in crunch time, to take the next step as a team.

Written by Tony East

Indiana Fever reporter based in Indianapolis. Enjoy a good statistical-based argument.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.