Commentary

Perimeter play puts Fever ahead

Originally Published: October 16, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Erin PhillipsMarilyn Indahl/US PresswireGuard Erin Phillips came to Indiana in 2011 via a three-team trade with Seattle and Washington.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Indiana coach Lin Dunn begins to nod at the mention of their names. It's not just that Erin Phillips and Shavonte Zellous have been such important factors in Indiana's 2012 season and playoff run.

It's also that the Fever got them for practically nothing in deals that Dunn and Fever general manager Kelly Krauskopf have every reason to smile broadly about. In both cases, the trades were pretty much steals for the Fever.

Now, with guard/forward Katie Douglas dealing with an ankle injury, Phillips, Zellous and Indiana's other perimeter players all are carrying a little more weight. And they've been doing that well.

In Sunday's 76-70 victory over Minnesota in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Phillips and Zellous started alongside Briann January, with guard Jeanette Pohlen coming off the bench. The Fever didn't hit from behind the arc as effectively as they had in their previous game, the Eastern Conference finals clincher at Connecticut.

But they still did a lot right. The four combined for 33 points and 11 assists, and the team had just nine turnovers against the WNBA defending champion Lynx. Douglas, back home in Indiana rehabbing the sprained left ankle she injured early in that Oct. 11 Game 3 against the Sun, had to be proud of how well the Indy guards battled without her.

[+] EnlargeBriann January
Marilyn Indahl/US PresswireBriann January was the No. 6 pick in the 2009 WNBA draft.

Post players Tamika Catchings (20 points, 6 rebounds) and Erlana Larkins (16 points, 15 rebounds) got the big numbers Sunday and were huge in Indiana's victory. But Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve also credited the Fever's perimeter play.

"Erin Phillips is somebody I've been a fan of for a long time," Reeve said. "She has tremendous fight in her, as does Zellous, who I coached [in Detroit].

"I don't know as much about Jeanette, but she was effective against us. January, she's a black belt [in karate], right? She's just hard-nosed and tough. She's a big part in making them go. She kind of dictated everything [Sunday]."

January (No. 6 pick from Arizona State in 2009) and Pohlen (No. 9 pick from Stanford in 2011) both came to Indiana via the draft. January, who's from Spokane, Wash., and Pohlen, a Southern California native, both were standouts in what was then still the Pac-10.

Zellous, who's originally from Orlando, Fla., was in the same 2009 draft as January, selected No. 11 by Detroit out of Pittsburgh. Reeve was an assistant in Detroit then, and had watched Zellous play a lot with the Panthers. The Shock didn't think there was much chance Zellous would still be available when they picked; they celebrated when she was.

"She fit into the Detroit style -- she was physically tough and mentally tough," Reeve said. "I absolutely loved coaching the kid. You could say anything to her, and no matter how you said it, she would listen."

Phillips, a native of Australia, started her WNBA career in Connecticut in 2006. She missed the 2007 WNBA season with a torn ACL, then was out most of 2008 as she trained for and competed with the Aussie team in the Beijing Olympics. She started for Connecticut in 2009, then was away again training with the Aussie team in 2010, preparing for the FIBA World Championship.

In 2011, she initially signed to go to Seattle, but then the Storm decided to bring in veteran Katie Smith, who was unhappy in Washington and wanted a trade. It ended up being a three-team deal between Seattle, Washington and Indiana in which the Fever got Phillips and the Storm's 2012 third-round pick in exchange for sending a 2012 second-round pick to the Storm and a '12 third-round pick to the Mystics.

[+] EnlargeShavonte Zellous
AP Photo/Darron CummingsShavonte Zellous was selected No. 11 overall by Detroit in the 2009 WNBA draft.

The Fever couldn't possibly have said "yes" fast enough to that trade, probably trying the whole time not to burst into hysterically giddy laugher. Two later-round draft picks for Phillips? Isn't that grand larceny?

Same goes for Zellous, whom the Fever got early in the 2010 season from the Shock after that franchise moved to Tulsa and Nolan Richardson was put in charge as coach/general manager.

"That was when Nolan was blowing up the team," Dunn said. "When we heard he was basically having a fire sale, we said, 'We want in.'"

The cost for getting Zellous? A 2011 second-round draft pick, which turned out to be Italee Lucas, who didn't make the Shock's roster. How about the draft picks the Fever dealt for Phillips? The Storm sent theirs to Chicago, which picked Shay Peddy this April. She didn't make the Sky's roster. Washington selected Briana Gilbreath, who didn't make it with the Mystics but did catch on for 11 games with injury-depleted Phoenix this season.

In short, the Fever traded essentially nothing to get two players currently starting for them in the WNBA Finals. This highlights one of the reasons Indiana has been successful: doing the homework to make personnel moves that have much more reward than risk.

Because of their success -- now eight consecutive postseason appearances -- the Fever have not been in good draft position much to get a lot of talent that way. Indiana has picked in the top three just twice in the franchise's 13-year history: taking Catchings in 2001 at No. 3, and Tan White at No. 2 in 2005.

We'll point out, also, that Indiana eagerly took Catchings third back then even though she was injured during her senior year at Tennessee and couldn't play in the 2001 WNBA season. As opposed to now-defunct Charlotte, which picked Kelly Miller that year at No. 2. Miller has had a decent WNBA career … but Catchings is one of the all-time greatest players in women's hoops history.

Douglas was also taken in that 2001 draft, at No. 10 by Orlando. The Miracle relocated in 2003 to Connecticut, where Douglas played until 2007, when she asked to be traded to her hometown team in Indiana. To the Sun, the Fever sent Tamika Whitmore (now out of the WNBA), their 2008 first-round draft choice (that was Ketia Swanier, who now plays for Atlanta), and the rights to Jessica Foley, an Australian who hasn't played in the league.

We detail all of this because an important way to gauge a franchise is to connect many dots over the years in regard to decisions and transactions it has made. Admittedly, the Sun were at a disadvantage because Douglas clearly wanted to leave. But getting her was, again, another fabulous swap for the Fever.

And they certainly hope that Douglas' recovery allows her to get on the court in these WNBA Finals. But with her out, the Fever still have won two tough road games against the teams that finished first in the East and West during the regular season.

January, who played in the 2009 WNBA Finals as a rookie, missed all but 10 games last season because of an ACL injury. Her impact on both ends of the court this year is significant.

Pohlen, an iron horse starter while at Stanford, has a different role in the WNBA. She's a reserve who might not play, but always has to be ready. She has proved effective when called upon, especially when the Fever have had some injury issues. Not just with Douglas, but also the concussion-like symptoms that January and Zellous dealt with near the end of the regular season.

"It's good just knowing I can come in and play whatever role is needed of me," said Pohlen, who is a combined 6-of-6 from the field in the last two games.

Phillips had a tough emotional blow this year when the Australian national team didn't include her on the squad for the Olympics. Despite her commitment in missing almost two WNBA seasons in the past to train with the Aussies, the fact that Phillips decided not to skip the entire first half of 2012 Fever campaign counted against her.

It seemed like a power-play move by the Aussie officials, but it didn't make any competitive sense.

"It was probably one of the hardest moments in my basketball career by far," Phillips said of finding out she wasn't picked for the London Games. "I was devastated, but I thought, 'This can go two ways.'"

She could either mope about it all summer, or she could concentrate on doing everything she could to help the Fever. She obviously picked the second choice.

"I said, to make this all better would be to win a championship with the Indiana Fever," Phillips said. "That's been my mindset."

And as for Zellous, who made the winning shot just before the buzzer in Game 2 of the East finals, she's happy to have found a home in Indy.

"When I got traded here, I did believe I was a good fit for this team," Zellous said. "We have a great group of perimeter players. … Without [Douglas], it hasn't been me or anyone else trying to step in and do everything. It's just been a collective effort to fill in.

"We've stuck together. We know Katie wouldn't want us to have a pity party because she's not out here. She's excited for us, and hopefully we'll still get her back."

In the meantime, they've held their own quite admirably.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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