The Indiana Fever’s 2021 campaign is nearly over. The team has two more games this weekend before their season ends, and they will be hoping to win them both and carry some momentum into the offseason.
Some aura has already been created by Indiana thanks to stronger play since the WNBA’s Olympic break. The Fever have been a much better team since the time off, especially on offense — Indiana’s net rating is 1.6 points per 100 possessions better since the start of August than it was in their first 20 games, and the team has an offensive rating of 98.3 in that timeframe, which has been above average in the WNBA. Despite not accumulating wins, the Fever have been a much better team since the Olympics.
“I think we have an opportunity to finish up strong. I think we will,” rookie guard Aaliyah Wilson declared earlier this season. Her prediction turned out to be correct.
A handful of Fever players have stepped up and been playing well in recent weeks, which is necessary for improved play. But a big strategic change has propelled the red and blue in their games since the time off — they have deployed more “small-ball” lineups, and those units are giving the Fever a new dimension.
In the latter portion of the season, Indiana has periodically changed their makeup on the floor. Instead of more conventional units, viewers have seen head coach Marianne Stanley deploy groups that are smaller, or faster, and features a player operating at a different position than they typically do. Sometimes, it’s a point guard playing shooting guard in a three-guard unit. Other times, it’s a small forward playing power forward in a spacing-heavy group. On occasion, it has been a power forward playing center in a lineup that can switch more on defense and move the ball quicker. The team has been more flexible with its rotation and strategy recently, and it’s leading to success.
“Sometimes you like to play small, depends on the opponent. When you can take advantage of it, you do,” Stanley noted. “Sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with injury,” she added. The Fever have been stunningly banged up in the second half of the season, and while the team did get creative with its lineups prior to many of the injuries, having several players unavailable has contributed to the volume of “small-ball” groups.
A frequent pairing that was used early in the Fever’s pivot to more small-ball groups featured Danielle Robinson and Lindsay Allen. Both of those players typically fill the point guard role, but after the Olympic break, they spent more time sharing the court. Before August, the two ball handlers played just four minutes together this season. Since then? They’ve hit the court for 29 minutes of simultaneous action, and the Fever have done well in those instances.
“I think for us, we want to push it up,” Allen said. “Weather it’s me, Kelsey (Mitchell), Tiff (Tiffany Mitchell), D-Rob (Danielle Robinson), even Tori (Victoria Vivians), we definitely enjoy [playing with two point guards] because it allows us to flow better and kind of get into things quicker.”
The lineups with both Allen and Robinson are fast and dynamic. The Fever have shot 52.5% with the duo on the floor this season and are able to generate good looks at both the rim and from deep. Playing smaller with two point guards gives Indiana a speed advantage and puts pressure on opposing defenses — it has been an effective weapon for the team of late.
Another small-ball style unit that the Fever have used is one that doesn’t involve any of of their traditional centers. Indiana has three players 6 feet 4 inches tall or taller — Bernadett Hatar, Jantel Lavender, and Teaira McCowan — and those three have filled most of the Fever’s playing time at center throughout the season.
But Hatar has been out with an injury for a few months now, and Lavender missed some time just after the Olympic break. That meant that McCowan was the only center still available for the team from the Circle City, and when she sat, the squad was forced to play without a center.
In some of those minutes, Stanley turned to Jessica Breland at the five spot. Breland is a reliable interior player who excels on defense and is extremely mobile for someone who stands at 6 feet 2 inches. But even Breland has missed a few games since August began, and she is out for the rest of the season with a thumb injury, so the Fever have been forced to go small often recently without numerous frontcourt members.
Emma Cannon, who the Fever signed midseason, has filled in nobly as the lone center in these minutes. At just 6 feet 2 inches, Cannon is short for a center, but she makes up for it with physical play and a relentless motor. And with just Cannon manning the middle for Indiana, the team has done well, amassing a roughly league average defense and a capable offense.
Even Lavender, who played both power forward and center at Ohio State University, has been forced (by injury necessity) to play more center than she is used to of late. “I think I did good,” she said of playing the five after dropping in a season-high 15 points against the Minnesota Lynx. The Fever have a blistering 115.6 offensive rating with Lavender at center since the Olympic break — she has helped stabilize the teams offense in smaller groups, albeit only slightly smaller.
Perhaps the best, and most popular, small-ball style of unit that Stanley has been going to more recently has been a lineup that places Victoria Vivians at the power forward spot. Vivians, who usually plays on the wing, has been playing more minutes further up the frontcourt recently, and she has done well in those opportunities.
The Mississippi State product is versatile, and with so many players missing time for the Fever of late, her skills have been crucial for the team’s success. Vivians has played shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and even a few seconds at center this campaign — her wide range of abilities has been the glue that has held some units together, especially since the end of the Olympic break.
Typically, though, Vivians does her damage in small-ball lineups when playing the power forward position. “The four (position) is pretty cool. I’m doing well at it,” she explained. “I’m a stretch four, I can shoot it or I can take it off the bounce. I feel like that’s very beneficial for our team. Most teams can’t pack the paint when I’m in at the four.”
She’s right. Since the Olympic break, the Fever have been near their best with Vivians at the power forward spot. They can score at will — in those 133 minutes, the Fever have a 106.8 offensive rating and can spread out on both ends of the court. The defense has been softer in those instances, but the team has looked effective with Vivians at the four spot.
Pre-Olympic break, these units couldn’t score. When Vivians was at the power forward spot from May through July, the team had an abysmal offensive rating of 77.3. Now, with various other small-ball variations included, the team can score at will in these moments. Everything has clicked for the red and blue since they tweaked their lineups and rotation.
“[Vivians] has been practicing at both the 3 and the 4. It just gives us a different dimension,” Stanley said of Vivians. “When you have a front line player who can shoot the deep 3, it changes the way people can guard you. It helps Teaira (McCowan) in the post. It helps our guards with driving lanes. Having her out there, when she’s shooting the ball well and getting into open space, is really helpful.”
Injuries and matchups have forced the Fever to go small often in their last ten games — it feels as if the team uses a new, unique lineup every game. But thanks to some creative decisions by Stanley and strong internal growth from a handful of players, Indiana has been able to stay afloat down the stretch of this season. With only two games left, the Fever can still move up in the standings. If their clever lineups continue to be a boon for the roster strategically, then the team could grab some wins and carry some momentum into the offseason.