The Fever are still riding the wave of Wheeler’s All-Star Game performance

Guard Erica Wheeler had one of her most efficient games of the season to help the Indiana Fever beat the Atlanta Dream on August 10. Wheeler had 19 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, and just one turnover to help the Fever win 87-82. Photo by Kimberly Geswein
Guard Erica Wheeler had one of her most efficient games of the season to help the Indiana Fever beat the Atlanta Dream on August 10. Wheeler had 19 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, and just one turnover to help the Fever win 87-82. Photo by Kimberly Geswein /

The Fever win their third straight home game with an 87-82 win over Atlanta

After Indiana’s victory on July 31, Erica Wheeler said she wanted the excitement of her All-Star Game MVP Award to generate a wave that her teammates could ride for the rest of the season.

It’s been two weeks since Wheeler was named MVP of the All-Star Game, but the Fever are still riding that wave after winning for the third time in four games since the break.

“I think we’re riding it,” Wheeler said after the Fever beat Atlanta on August 10. “I think we’ve been playing well these past couple of games. We’re undefeated at home (3-0 since the All-Star break). I think we’re putting some things together and we’re finishing our games.”

Wheeler scored a game-winning basket in the Fever’s first game after the break against Atlanta on July 31. After that game, Wheeler told reporters that she wants her accomplishments in Vegas to be something that can fuel a strong finish to the season.

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“Me making MVP and coming back bringing the energy to my team. You know, we’ve got a wave right now and it’s our wave,” Wheeler told reporters on July 31. “The whole world is watching me so that means they’re watching my team. So, we’ve just got to ride this wave and play one game at a time and do the things that we need to do.”

Indiana had lost 9 of 10 games going into the All-Star break, including eight straight at home. Wheeler’s MVP performance in Vegas, where she had 25 points, 7 assists, and 7 three-pointers, provided a timely jolt of energy.

“(Wheeler and Candice Dupree) won their All-Star Game and they brought that winning mentality right back here,” veteran guard Shenise Johnson said after the Fever beat Atlanta on Saturday. “It was just more of an upbeat, positive, ‘we’ve got this’ mentality and dialogue that we’ve been having and it really helps.”

Indiana has now won three straight home games for the first time since early in the 2017 season. They have won three of four games to improve to 9-16. Last year’s team was 3-22 after 25 games.

So, what’s helping Indiana ride the “Wheeler Wave?”

Chatman is sticking with lineups that work from game to game

Coach Pokey Chatman has told her team all season that, “It’s going to take all of us.” She’s blessed with a team where anyone can play well on a given night.  She’s also cursed with a team where anyone can struggle at any time.

This can make it difficult for her to find a good lineup from game to game, but once she finds one, she sticks with it, even if it means benching the All-Star MVP.

On August 3, Indiana fell behind Minnesota 41-21 in the second quarter. Chatman benched her starters and watched her reserves cut the lead to 10 at halftime. She then made the unconventional move of starting the second half with four bench players – Kelsey Mitchell, Natalie Achonwa, Stephanie Mavunga, and Johnson. The lone starter was Tiffany Mitchell. That lineup helped the Fever outscore Minnesota 29-11 in the third quarter. The Fever went on to complete their largest regular-season comeback in franchise history to win 86-75.

Wheeler, who was held scoreless in that game and only played eight minutes, led the celebration on the bench as her teammates made the historic comeback.

Before the Atlanta game on August 10, Chatman said she couldn’t remember ever starting the second half with that many subs during her nine years of coaching in the WNBA.

During the Atlanta game on August 10, the Fever led 41-39 at halftime, but Chatman watched her lineup that included four starters fall behind 55-48 with 3:38 left in the third quarter. Chatman called a timeout and inserted Johnson and Teaira McCowan in off the bench. Those two, along with Kelsey Mitchell, Wheeler, and Dupree, sparked a 30-15 run over the next 11 minutes that put the Fever ahead by eight points with 2:04 to play. Chatman made just one substitution after that third-quarter timeout, which didn’t come until 3:04 was left in the game.

“Our bench squad is tough,” Wheeler said after the win on August 10. “You know, they’re some dogs, and I commend them every day for that because they work. So they’re always ready. You know, our starting five is good as well, but our bench, they’re some dogs.”

The Fever’s bench has averaged 41.8 points in their last four games.

“It’s the bench mob mentality,” said Johnson, who’s provided solid minutes as a reserve this season. “We want to go out there and make sure we’re doing something productive. You know, we like to watch, we’re talking about what’s going on in the game, and we’re in tune with what’s going on on the court. So when we go in, we’re ready to go.”

Players are learning how to bounce back from poor performances

After her scoreless game against Minnesota, Wheeler had just seven points in her next game as the Fever lost at Washington on August 8.  She bounced back two days later against Atlanta with one of her most efficient games of the season.  She led the team with 19 points and 7 assists. She also recorded six rebounds, two steals, and just one turnover.

When asked why she was able to play so well after two subpar performances, Wheeler spent the first 27 seconds talking about how impressed she was with her teammates and coaches during the Minnesota game a week earlier. Then she said,

“Today, I just read the game. Teams are playing me differently, so I just read the game.”

Chatman, however, didn’t hold back in her praise for Wheeler. She was frustrated when Wheeler picked up a technical in the third quarter when she shoved Renee Montgomery, but was impressed with everything else her point guard did.

It helped Indiana withstand a career-high 34 points from Atlanta guard Tiffany Hayes.

“She had a really nice bounce back from a shaky few games in terms of handling the ball and shot pass, dribble selection,” Chatman said of Wheeler. “I thought she was better with the effective use of her dribble.  Assists (were up because) she was looking for the right people.”

Dupree led the Fever with nine rebounds against Atlanta. She also scored 16 points on 6-12 shooting. After the game, she talked about how she’s been trying to be more consistent since the All-Star break.

“I’m just trying to stay locked in on both ends of the floor,” Dupree said. “Hitting shots that I know I can make. Leading up to the (All-Star) break, the focus wasn’t there offensively for me. So I’m just trying to lock back in and on defense, just trying to keep everyone engaged.”

Kelsey Mitchell is another player who has rebounded from some bad games. She averaged just 7.8 points per game during the Fever’s eight games in July. After starting the first 19 games of the season, Kelsey was benched on July 21 in favor of Tiffany Mitchell. With Kelsey unable to provide much offense, Chatman figured she’d start Tiffany in favor of more defense.

However, Kelsey has played much better during the team’s three games in August. She had 20 points, 9 assists, and played the whole second half during the comeback win against Minnesota. She had 18 points and 6 assists on August 8 at Washington. She had just 10 points against Atlanta, but she was part of the lineup that helped the Fever comeback from that seven-point deficit in the third quarter. She also hit a huge three with 1:28 left that helped hold off Atlanta’s comeback attempt.

Chatman said assistant coach Christie Sides thought of a way to change some schemes to help Kesley on the offensive side of the ball. Chatman said Kelsey has been receptive to these changes, which were discussed before the Fever opened the second half against Atlanta on July 31.

It will be interesting to see whether Chatman keeps Kelsey coming off the bench.

Teaira McCowan is getting to the foul line more often

Chatman loved having McCowan and Kelsey Mitchell in at the same time during the end of the Atlanta game. She said defenders have to respect Kelsey’s three-point shooting, which creates space for McCowan in the post. If they decided to cheat on McCowan, then that gives Kelsey space to shoot from the perimeter.

McCowan must have enjoyed that lineup as well because she had eight points and three rebounds in the fourth quarter on Saturday. She made six of eight free throws in the final quarter as her teammates looked to get her the ball down low.

McCowan made seven of 10 foul shots overall on Saturday and finished with 13 points.  She is 21-for-31 from the foul line in four games after the All-Star break. McCowan has absorbed an enormous amount of contact, especially during Saturday’s game, but she says the pain is worth it to get to the line and help her team.

“Yeah, there was a lot of contact,” McCowan said after the Atlanta game. “I’ll probably feel it more in the morning when I wake up than right now.”

McCowan’s rebounding has been huge all season. She currently leads the league in rebounding percentage, grabbing 23.6% of available rebounds while she’s on the floor. McCowan has been at the top of that category since she started seeing more consistent playing time in mid-June. After Saturday’s win, McCowan was seventh in the WNBA with 8.0 rebounds per game.

That’s some impressive rebounding for a rookie.

“It feels good to know that I’m just scratching the surface on what’s to come,” McCowan said. “I’ve just got to stay on that and just keep my confidence high.”

Now, Chatman wants McCowan to start noticing things that don’t necessarily show up in the box score.

“She realizes she’s getting there, because we’re going to make her get there, that sometimes it’s just her role that activates the defense and gets other people open,” Chatman said. “So we need her in the game. I think sometimes she gets frustrated because players are trying their best to move her around and if she breathes on someone, it’s a foul. So we have to make her stay connected to the moment and remember how dominant she can be, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.”

The Fever have a week off before their next game

The Fever don’t play again until August 18 at Washington. Johnson hopes they spend some time during their off-week working on defensive rotations and schemes.

While Chatman probably wants to work on that as well, she also mentioned how the coaches are helping their players understand the importance of keeping the ball moving on the offensive end of the floor. She said for the last three weeks of practice, coaches have been limiting the number of dribbles players are allowed to take. They started by only allowing the players to take up to four dribbles before passing the ball. Then the coaches gave the players three dribbles. If a player dribbled more than that, they had to run. Chatman says the coaches are trying to put the players in stressful situations in practice.

We’ll have to see if this extra practice time and the “Wheeler Wave” can help the Fever keep overcoming stressful situations in games during the last month of the season.

(Kimberly Geswein contributed to this story with quotes from the Fever locker room)

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