July 12, 2021
What has fueled this impressive winning streak for the Indiana Fever?
Inside the Fever's three-game stretch of victories that has the rest of the WNBA on notice
Can anybody stop the Indiana Fever?
For sixteen of their first seventeen opponents, the answer was, well, yes. But Indiana refused to give up on their season and have found a winning formula over the last ten days, entering the month-long Olympic break with a three-game winning streak that has generated momentum and “good vibes,” according to Tiffany Mitchell.
Though they remain in the basement of the WNBA standings — currently sitting five games out of the eighth and final playoff spot with 12 remaining — the Fever have turned heads over their past three contests, impressively defeating the Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty at home before handling the Atlanta Dream on the road.
“I think we just got to a point where things began to gel and we began to understand just how hard it is to get a win, and we’re willing to do it,” said Head Coach Marianne Stanley.
Indiana seemed to reach a turning point in its season during the second half of the game before the win against Connecticut, which was also against the Sun. After falling behind 55-37 after the first twenty minutes, the Fever rallied in the third quarter and outscored the Sun 23-13 in the frame, though they fell short of completing the comeback in the fourth quarter. Since winning that second half by 12 overall, the Fever haven’t looked back, and their fortunes have changed.
“Obviously, we went on a lull where it’s hard to win a game, so that’s always tough,” said Kelsey Mitchell. “But I think that us in the locker room, we kind of committed to staying with one another.”
After appearing overmatched throughout much of the season, what have been the biggest factors to Indiana’s surprising three-game turnaround?
In their first of the two games against Connecticut, the Fever were unable to overcome their 15 turnovers, which led to 25 easy points for the Sun. However, they got their revenge just two days later, flipping the script in regards to giveaways and committing just seven turnovers, leading to only six Sun points.
Although the Fever had gone just 1-9 previous back-to-back two-game series — a schedule commonality for many teams in 2021 — Stanley acknowledged that making specific, tailored adjustments are one of the benefits to playing the same team for two consecutive games.
“We get to fix it immediately and look at it immediately, and be better the next time,” Stanley said. “We just looked at, hey, what are we doing that we need to fix to be better in this one? That was exhibit A. Keep the turnovers down.”
The trend of low turnovers continued six days later when the Fever defeated the Liberty — Indiana committed just seven giveaways while forcing 20 from New York. The Fever scored 28% of its 82 points off of the opponent’s mistakes, as they were able to effectively execute their transition game and tire out the travel-weary Liberty.
The Fever struggled mightily with chemistry during the early stretch of the season — they began the season with six new faces on the roster — which manifested itself through their 15.5 turnovers-per-game average, third-worst in the league. During the two-game stretch against the Sun and Liberty, they executed much cleaner, crisper passes that showed the signs of a team beginning to gel.
“I think that we’re continuing to learn each other throughout the season,” said Danielle Robinson. “We know each other’s spots, we know when people want the ball, where they want it, so it makes it easier.”
Although the Fever had greater issues holding onto the ball against Atlanta — committing 19 turnovers — they were able to overcome these mistakes through sound half-court defense, leading to the fact that…
Defense has clamped down
Over their three-game win streak, the Fever have locked in defensively harder than any previous stretch of the season.
Through its first seventeen games, Indiana ranked dead last in the WNBA in defensive rating (109.5) and hadn’t held an opponent under 70 points. Since July 3, they have completely flipped those statistics on their heads, surging to the top of the league in defensive rating (86.8) and allowing just 67, 69 and 68 points to the Sun, Liberty and Dream, respectively.
The Fever have been able to overcome slow starts to New York (17-10) and Atlanta (12-2) by limiting the damage and getting key stops to prevent them from falling into even deeper holes. When they’ve built fourth-quarter leads, they’ve also secured critical defensive possessions to stave off hopes of opponent comebacks.
“We have known since the beginning of the season that we were going to have to be able to defend. Early on, it was really a struggle for us,” said Stanley. “In the last three to four weeks, I think we’ve been much better defensively, and then these couple of games, when we needed stops, we got them.”
The most glaring example of the Fever’s strides on the defensive end came late in the victory over Atlanta when they held the Dream scoreless for more than eight minutes spanning the third and fourth quarters.
“The credit to our coaches, they work really hard on our scouts, knowing personnel, and we just executed the scout,” Robinson said. “We knew that they took outside shots, we were able to rebound the ball and really push in transition… we just wanted to contest everything and then get those rebounds.”
Getting help for Kelsey Mitchell
Kelsey Mitchell has been a steady force of consistency for the Indiana Fever over the last two seasons, but the rest of her teammates have struggled to support the former second overall pick. Before the winning streak, nobody besides Mitchell (16.3) was averaging over 12 points per game — a primary reason why the Fever ranked dead-last in the WNBA in scoring over the 17-game stretch (74.2 points per game).
Robinson, the team’s offseason point guard acquisition who’s started all 20 games this season, has scored 16.3 points on 56% shooting during the win streak. She’s looked significantly more aggressive in getting to the rim and pushing in fast break situations, using her uncontainable speed and agility to blow by defenders in transition.
She’s also dishing the ball with fluidity and creating optimal looks for her teammates, evidenced by her 5.3 assists and greater than 4:1 assist to turnover ratio during the stretch.
What’s been the key to her individual turnaround?
“Just being aggressive, opening things up for the rest of the team,” Robinson said. “It starts with me, they’re the first thing I see offensively and defensively, so I gotta keep that mentality. It just starts us off aggressive, we’re not passive and we really dictate that way.”
“I think, you know, being a new player to the Fever… it’s just taken her a while to get settled and figure out how she could impact the game.” Stanley added. “When she gets going offensively, it takes some of the pressure off Kelsey. It takes some of the pressure off everybody else because now you’ve got to guard her. She’s in the middle of the floor a lot — you can choose to not guard her and she’s going to score on you, or you can send somebody from one of the shooters and it just opens things up.”
McCowan has also come on as of late, averaging 16.3 points and 11.7 rebounds over the last three games.
Sliding into a starting role against Atlanta with Jantel Lavender resting for load management, the third-year center scored 21 points — her highest total since May 14 — to go along with 14 rebounds and three blocks. She was a key contributor to the Fever’s second-half push to put the game out of reach, scoring three consecutive fourth-quarter baskets down low on perfect passes from Robinson and Jessica Breland to expand the lead from nine to 15.
The Fever will need McCowan’s production, particularly with Breland “banged up,” according to Stanley, and the previous release of another post player in Lauren Cox. McCowan, who admitted that she lost some confidence earlier in the season, says she’s certainly up for the challenge.
“After performing well tonight, I know what I’m capable of,” she said after the Atlanta win. “We had a talk amongst the team. They told me that they needed me so, you know, that really hit home. I’m used to carrying teams, so if I get going and they say that they need me, then I’m stepping up.”
It may be easy to call this a surprising winning streak for a team that couldn’t seem to buy a win during the first half of the season from the outside looking in. The Fever, however, claim that they never wavered in their level of intensity and focus during practices, and now it’s carrying over to games.
“Knowing the work that we put in throughout the season, people counting us out, saying whatever they want to say… we worked just as hard as everybody else and we knew that eventually, we would turn it around,” Robinson said. “We’re just playing for each other, playing Indiana basketball at the end of the day — gritty, hard-nosed — and just enjoying it.”