June 4, 2024 

Inside the Indiana Fever’s historically busy early-season schedule

Kelsey Mitchell: 'We need a day or two to decompress'

INDIANAPOLIS — Even players who aren’t on the Indiana Fever realize how difficult the early-season schedule has been for the WNBA club. New USC guard Talia von Oelhoffen, a college star who is just an observer, can feel the effects from afar.

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“I’m getting second hand soreness from the fact that the Fever play a game every single day,” von Oelhoffen shared on the social media platform X.

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Sunday, Indiana played its 11th game of the WNBA season. The 2024 campaign began on May 14, yet Indiana played over 10 games in less than three weeks to open the campaign. About 27.5% of the Fever’s duels have passed already — yet one month ago, Candace Parker had just announced her retirement. Fever training camp was just four days old.

Of the 128 days that make up the WNBA calendar this season, only about 15% of them have passed. Yet Indiana has played 11 times. For reference, the Las Vegas Aces have just six games played so far. The Chicago Sky, Atlanta Dream and Dallas Wings only have hit the hardwood seven times. On Tuesday, the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury will both hit double-digit games played and will still have fewer outings than the Indiana Fever.

It was a difficult slate to open the campaign in Indianapolis. “This is crazy,” veteran Katie Lou Samuelson said after the team played its first seven games in 12 days. She couldn’t remember a stretch like that before in her career. “This is beyond anything I could have thought it would be.”

The last team to play this often, per information and research provided by Across The Timeline, was the Washington Mystics in 2011. They played 11 times from Aug. 16 to Sept. 4 of that year and went 1-10 in that span, slightly worse than the 2-9 Fever. Prior to that, there are no instances of this happening since 2006. That year, five teams dealt with particularly game-heavy stretches.

In 2000, a season in which 16 teams played a 32-game season that spanned from May 29 until Aug. 9, several teams went through this scheduling gauntlet. As the league grew from 1999 to 2003, it was a somewhat common occurrence. In the last 17 seasons, though, it had only happened once before. The Fever had to deal with a tough program.

“It’s not something I do frequently,” forward Temi Fagbenle shared, jokingly, about the schedule. “It’s a lot. It’s a lot on the body, it’s a lot on the mind.”

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For some players, it has been particularly brutal. Caitlin Clark and Celeste Taylor finished playing college basketball about two months ago and rolled right into their demanding WNBA season. Samuelson is returning from a year away from the league after becoming a mom, and she is getting her legs back. Damiris Dantas is out with a knee injury, and she is missing a significant portion of the season due to the rapid-fire schedule.

On top of the physical demands, Indiana hasn’t been able to practice much. Veteran guard Kelsey Mitchell said that the team has had one, maybe two tune-up sessions since the season started — but she stopped short of calling them real practices. For a young group looking to improve on defense, not having moments to refine and tweak things is difficult.

“Maybe when I was 13 years old,” Clark said when recalling the last time she played this frequently. Sitting next to her was young center Aliyah Boston, who also chimed in. “That off day that we had when we came back [from a road trip] feels like heaven. It’s just better that we got that little break.”

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark holds the ball with two hands as she prepares to shoot a free throw.
Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark attempts a free throw against the Atlanta Dream during a preseason game in Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind., on May 9, 2024. (Photo credit: Tony East | The Next)

Head coach Christie Sides brings up the lack of practice time often when discussing the team’s early struggles. While that can be viewed as an excuse for the team’s poor record, it certainly seems to be an argument with merit. The Fever had three straight games at home this past week and were able to get a small practice session in last Friday. They worked on their shell defense and got back to the basics. The very next day, they beat the Chicago Sky and held them to a season-low 70 points. One practice helped.

Yet Indiana hasn’t had many. Five of the team’s 13 players are new this year yet haven’t had as much time to iron out early-season issues. Poor play is why the Fever are 2-9 to open the season, but their schedule has done them no favors. And not only has it been physically demanding, it has been difficult in quality. Indiana has already battled the New York Liberty three times, the Aces once, the Seattle Storm twice and the Connecticut Sun twice. Those would be tough games even with a week to prepare.

“Just trying to manage minutes. We’ve had to do that since we started, playing every other day,” Sides said of managing the schedule. She’s had to use timeouts and quarter breaks more constructively to get the appropriate amount of rest for her team. “Once we can get through these games, maybe get a few practices, that’s going to help.”

Many teams around the association will have condensed stretches this season because of the Olympic break. Every team in the WNBA is off from July 21 through Aug. 14 for the 2024 Paris Games. Other taxing stretches will pop up as a result — Indiana won’t be alone in that. But the Fever’s frequency of games has been historic to open the campaign.

That’s what has made it so challenging, and why it’s understandable that there have been obvious signs of fatigue. The Fever’s fourth quarter defensive rating, for example, is by far their worst of any quarter so far this season, and they already have four losses by six points or fewer. Two back-to-backs haven’t helped the cause. Indiana gave up a total of 203 points on the second night of those two-games-in-two-nights moments.

They don’t have another back-to-back this season, though, and they are through the most brutal portion of their 2024 slate. “I think mentally, we just kind of, as an organization, need a day or two to decompress,” Mitchell said on Sunday night.

After losing on Sunday, the Fever head home and have four days off. They can finally rest, then have a meaningful practice. They’ll take a few days to get their physical, and mental, health in order first.

“Sleeping in! I’m tired,” forward NaLyssa Smith said of what she is looking forward to. “I just want to sleep in.”

The refreshed group will get back at it this coming weekend. They next play on Friday, when they battle the Mystics in Washington, but the Fever will be thrilled that they don’t suit up for another four days.

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Written by Tony East

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

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