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Erin Phillips talks about playing more point guard and how she fits in with the Fever.
TULSA -- Friday, all the WNBA's excitement (Sue Bird hit, ho-hum, yet another game-winning shot in her career) and pleasant weather (aka no blast-furnace conditions) were in Seattle.
But here in the nation's heated-up heartland, the team that might be starting to get a little separation in the Eastern Conference crisply took care of business. The Indiana Fever lost their starting point guard on June 28. Do they miss Briann January? Absolutely. But does it actually show that much in games? Not really. How come?
"Great team chemistry, great people on and off the court," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said.
Indiana (15-6) has won five in a row, answering the three-game losing streak the Fever had just before the All-Star break. Prior to that, Indy had won seven straight.
|Jessica Davenport and the Fever have won five straight and lead the East by two games.|
And while you rightfully expect that anything good with the Fever has to involve Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, there is a lot more to Indy's story this season.
There was the decision the Fever made to keep three potential point guards on the opening-day roster, which was fortuitous considering that they've since lost January. The current starter in that role, Erin Phillips, came to Indy from Seattle via a three-way trade in April.
"I love this team; we have a great mix of players," Phillips said. "Every game, I've tried to get more comfortable in this role. For me personally, it's been a great learning experience because I hadn't played point guard for a while. I'm really enjoying it."
There was the choice by one of the league's most durable veteran post players -- Tangela Smith has appeared in at least 31 games for 11 of her previous 13 seasons -- to sign with Indy in part to be closer to her hometown of Chicago. But also
"One of the main reasons I came to Indiana is I knew they were a championship-caliber team," said Smith, who won the league title in 2009 with Phoenix (against, incidentally, the Fever).
There is the blossoming of center Jessica Davenport, a candidate for most improved player. Davenport, Shannon Bobbitt and Shyra Ely all were waived by their former teams and essentially picked off the scrap heap by Fever GM Kelly Krauskopf. Neither Bobbitt nor Ely, both Tennessee alums, played in the WNBA in 2010. Now they are pro teammates alongside the most successful former Lady Vol in WNBA history, Catchings.
The Fever's 2011 first-round draft pick, Jeanette Pohlen, has done exactly what Dunn hoped she would: shoot effectively coming off the bench (24-of-46 from behind the arc). And Shavonte Zellous, whom the Fever got in a trade with Tulsa last summer, has been the slashing guard presence among the Indiana reserves.
Speaking of that trade, it's part of the sad story of the Shock, who are still looking for the team's second victory this season. Friday, Tulsa tied a franchise record with its 13th consecutive loss in the 85-65 defeat to Indiana.
During the Nolan Richardson era as Shock coach/GM, which ended in July, it was as if Tulsa wasn't playing "Deal or No Deal" but rather "Bad Deal or Worse Deal." Zellous, for example, was dealt for a 2011 second-round pick; that turned out to be Italee Lucas, who didn't make the Shock roster.
|After Briann January was sidelined in June, Erin Phillips took over most of the point guard duties for the Fever.|
To be fair, you'd have to say that one trade that did go OK for Tulsa was sending Kara Braxton to Phoenix last year for Nicole Ohlde and the Mercury's 2011 first-round draft pick. Ohlde retired from the WNBA before this season, so that part was a wash. But the draft selection was Stanford's Kayla Pedersen, who has been one of the Shock's bright spots in a bleak 2011 season.
The Mercury -- who traded Braxton to New York this past week after a dust-up with the coaching staff -- surely would not mind having Pedersen now. And Pedersen, who grew up in the greater Phoenix area, would no doubt be thrilled to be in Arizona -- or just about any place on earth where her team's record wasn't 1-18.
Although she isn't complaining about it. After swallowing another bitter losing pill on Friday, Pedersen and the rest of the Shock simply vowed to keep soldiering on under interim head coach Teresa Edwards.
While the Tulsa franchise is now a case study in how many things can go wrong, Indiana appears to be the opposite. All the moves the Fever made for 2011 seem to be paying off.
"With Erin and Shannon, we have two people in the backcourt who defend at that high, high level like Bri does," Dunn said. "A lot of times when you lose your starting point guard, you lose your defensive focus. But they're both physical and aggressive. And they complement each other. We definitely do miss Bri, but we've done a good job of not letting that hold us back."
Admittedly, any time you've got the likes of Catchings and Douglas, building a team is easier. But still not easy. We've seen other circumstances where teams have a couple of key pieces to the puzzle, yet can't solve it.
While what Indiana has done will not be enough for Catchings unless the Fever win a WNBA title, she's pleased with how 2011 has gone to this point.
"Knowing what Bri has meant to this team the last two years, we had some concerns for sure when she was hurt," Catchings said. "But we had two backups that have played the point guard position before. They've done very well so far."
There are five current Fever players who were also on the squad in 2009, when Indiana went the distance before falling to Phoenix in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. January is one of them; the others are Catchings, Douglas, Davenport and Tammy Sutton-Brown.
"Everybody is always looking at me like, 'Golly, you're never satisfied,'" Catchings said. "I want to win the championship. And when you look at how this season compares [to 2009], it's that everybody is on the same page and playing for a common goal."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.