June 2, 2024 

‘We’ve got to get to a level of toughness’ — Indiana Fever dealing with defensive struggles to open season

The Indiana Fever are struggling on defense to open 2024. It's holding them back

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s the second game of the season for the Indiana Fever, and they are getting thumped by the New York Liberty. Breanna Stewart is unstoppable and New York is living at the foul line, thanks to the Liberty’s dominant rim attacks. 12 minutes of game have time passed, and the Liberty already have 25 points. Their offense never slowed down.

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By the time the game ended, the 2023 WNBA runners-up had poured in 102 points. It was the first game of the 2024 WNBA campaign that saw a team reach 100+ points. As of June 2, there have been five such games. Indiana has been on the receiving end of two of them, making them the only franchise to do so.

Head coach Christie Sides sounded off on the poor defensive effort after the game. “We’ve got to get to a level of toughness. When things go South on us, we’re not stopping the bleeding,” she said. The head coach wanted to see her team reach a different level of mental toughness. “We’ve got to get stops so we can do what we’re really good at.”

It was just game two, but that night effectively summed up the Fever’s struggles throughout this campaign. They can’t defend anybody, and it’s the biggest reason for their 2-8 record.

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To this point, the Indiana Fever are last in defensive rating, at 110.1. That is the worst number in the league by a fair amount. Only five teams are over 100, and the Fever are the only team over 107. They haven’t been able to stop anybody.

Last year, Indiana ranked 11th with a defensive rating of 106.3. This season, the franchise hoped it would be better. Getting stops is one of the keys for the franchise to take a step forward and achieve their playoff goals, but that hasn’t happened yet. “I think that’s going to be our thing. Coach has emphasized that a lot. Just being able to be in the gaps, being able to contest,” center Aliyah Boston Boston said during training camp.

Instead, the team has struggled on that end of the floor. They’ve had a game or two with defensive success, but they can’t keep up most nights. Even if their offense, which currently sits in fifth, is clicking, they struggle.

Indiana Fever vs Washington Mystics
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes drives to the basket between Indiana Fever guards Kristy Wallace and Grace Berger in a game on July 17. 2023. (Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra)

Perhaps the best proof of that came in the most recent win for the Indiana Fever. They just beat the Chicago Sky on Saturday and held their foe to 70 points. The day prior, the Fever had a short session — not quite a practice but more than a walkthrough — where they focused on defensive basics. The next day, their defense hummed.

“We were just tired of talking about it. It was something that we were like ‘let’s stop talking about it, let’s just go out there and do it’,” forward NaLyssa Smith said after that victory. “We came together, we helped each other out a lot. And I just felt like we played team defense today.”

Two days earlier, though, they watched the Seattle Storm drop 103 points on Indiana’s home court. They couldn’t stop anything that night. The Storm shot 56% that night, by far the high bar for a Fever opponent this season, while also making over 42% of their threes and only turning the ball over seven times. It was the low point for the Fever defensive this season.

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It hasn’t mattered much who is on the floor for the Fever. Temi Fagbenle and Kristy Wallace have statistically helped the team defensively the most this season, but even in the minutes with those players on the floor, Indiana’s defense is below average, per pbpstats. That speaks to the fact that it isn’t one player or issue hurting the teams. It is team defense. Rotations, communication, and sliding over to help hasn’t happened at the level it needs to.

“It’s just about making that extra effort to rotate. It sounds simple, but just taking pride in defense and guarding your man,” Smith said of what the team needs to do better. “Helping on help-side. Controlling things that you can control like back cuts and getting over screes, talking more. I’d say just that.” Smith later said that she feels like the team’s chemistry is there and that they are playing well offensively. But their defense was holding them back.

The Indiana Fever want to have a defensive identity. That was clear when they hired Sides, it remained clear when they added Katie Lou Samuelson and Damiris Dantas in free agency this winter, and the words spoken by the team match those actions. They want to get stops and be threatening in transition. Yet so far, they’ve been atrocious on the less glamorous end of the court.

“I just think we’ve not had the practice time. That has a lot to do with it … we’ve got to be in help-side, and we’ve got to help the helper.” Sides said of their defensive struggles. Indiana is undefeated when they allow less than 85 points in a game but 0-8 otherwise. “We’ve just got to pull over [defensively]… we’ve just got to get back and work on it.”

So far, the defense has been the biggest factor holding Indiana back from a better start to the season. Their schedule eases up soon, and they’ll be able to practice their defensive principles more often. That will help. So will a general buy in from the team on the defensive end.

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Written by Tony East

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

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