‘We have to get to a level of toughness’ — Indiana Fever dealing with defensive issues to open the season

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

Head coach Christie Sides sounded off after the game about the poor defensive effort. “We need to reach a level of robustness. If the odds are against us, we can’t stop the bleeding,” she said. The head coach wanted to see her team reach another level of mental toughness. “We have to stop so we can do what we are really good at.”

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

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So far, the Indiana Fever rank last in defensive rating at 110.1. That’s by far the worst number in the league. Only five teams are over 100, and the Fever are the only team over 107. They haven’t been able to stop anyone.

Last year, Indiana ranked 11th with a defensive rating of 106.3. This season, the franchise hoped things would be better. Stopping 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 compete,” center Aliyah Boston Boston said during training camp.

Instead, the team has struggled on that end of the floor. They’ve had a few games with defensive success but can’t keep up most nights. Even if their offense, currently ranked fifth, is clicking, they’ll struggle.

Perhaps the best evidence of that was the most recent win for the Indiana Fever. They just defeated the Chicago Sky on Saturday, holding their foe to 70 points. The day before, the Fever had a short session – not really a practice but more than a walkthrough – where they focused on defensive fundamentals. The next day their defense was buzzing.

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

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

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It doesn’t really matter who’s there for the Fever. Temi Fagbenle and Kristy Wallace have statistically helped the team the most defensively this season, but even in the minutes with those players on the floor, Indiana’s defense has been below average, per pbpstats. That says something about the fact that it’s not one player or problem that’s hurting the teams. It’s team defense. Rotations, communication and transitions to help have not occurred at the level that is necessary.

“It’s about making an extra effort to rotate. It sounds simple, but just take pride in defense and guarding your man,” Smith said of what the team needs to do better. “Helping on the assistance side. Controlling things you can control, like cutting corners and overcoming messes, talking more. I would just say that.” Smith later said she feels the team’s chemistry is there and they are playing well offensively. But their defense held 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 the team spoke match those actions. They want to stop and be threatening in the transition. But so far they have been brutal on the less glamorous side of the field.

“I just don’t think we had enough practice time. That has a lot to do with it… we have to be on the help side, and we have to help the helper.” Parties said about their defensive struggle. Indiana is undefeated when allowing fewer than 85 points in a game, but 0-8 otherwise. “We just got to stop (defensively)… we just got to come back and work on it.”

So far, the biggest factor holding Indiana back from a better start to the season has been defense. Their schedule will soon become more flexible and they will be able to practice their defensive principles more often. That will help. This also applies to a general buy-in from the defending team.

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