UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- What's left to do won't be easy for the Indiana Fever. Should inspiration be required, they might do well to look to the difficult path Briann January trod simply to have a season she can put on the line.
More importantly, they will look to her for the points, assists and defense that could make all the difference.
The math is unforgiving, its significance unmistakable. Lose the first game of a best-of-three series in the WNBA playoffs, and it's a long road back. Even with a postseason format that until recently allowed the team with a worse seed to open a series at home, the Game 1 winner went on to win the series 70 percent of the time in the league's playoff history entering this season's conference finals.
Overcoming the weight of such history once isn't easy. For the Fever, who rallied from a game down against the Atlanta Dream in the opening round this season, a spot in the WNBA Finals necessitates beating those odds for the second time in as many series after dropping Game 1 against the Connecticut Sun on Friday.
Only twice did a road team in the conference finals win Game 3, a game the Fever now just hope to force before they worry about winning it. But they don't need a reminder that this all is possible, not after the Dream did it at their expense last year. It's no coincidence that the Fever played that series, along with the rest of the playoffs and most of the regular season, without January after she suffered a torn ACL 10 games into her third season.
And it's no stretch to say that as an easily overlooked piece of the puzzle alongside stars Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, January is reason to think they are as dangerous down a game this season as up a game last season.
"She's done a really good job," Catchings said of January's season. "I think she kind of gets overshadowed by Katie and I, but you look at her numbers in every single one of the categories, this is the best she's played by far. As far as consistency, too, just being that kind of third scorer out there that we know we can count on, we know we can rely on. Even defensively, stepping up her game and being a huge presence on the defensive end."
Catchings knows of what she speaks. Across the board, from starts to field goal percentage to 3-pointers to assists, January established career highs in the regular season. And despite a quiet night in Game 1 against the Sun, totaling seven points and two assists in 36 minutes, she has improved on almost all of her regular-season averages through the Fever's four playoff games this season. If January was a question mark when the season began, coming back from injury and then starting a full season's worth of games for the first time, the answer was a 22-12 record that matched the most wins in franchise history.
"She was coming back from a serious injury, so I'm not sure what I expected from her having taken a year off," Douglas said. "But ever since I saw her, once I got into camp, I saw that she was the same explosive athlete. And I think she's grown so much more. I think she maybe grew last year, just watching the game a little bit, not having to play. I think she definitely learned, by sitting, just how to be a point guard and stuff like that. I think her explosiveness is back 100 percent, but I think mentally, she's much more confident and calm out there."
Maybe 2011 was a season lost for January, but it was not a season wasted. Although she didn't start on a regular basis in her first two seasons with the Fever out of Arizona State, she was on the court more often than not, averaging 21 minutes as a rookie and 22 minutes per game in her second season. As had been the case throughout her basketball life, her view of the game came from looking at the action unfold around her, not the third-person view of watching from afar. Players will happily take a career in which that never changes if it means staying healthy, but the change in vantage point necessitated by her knee was not without benefit.
Rather than sit at the end of the bench and contribute little more than high-fives to players exiting the game, she essentially served a coaching apprenticeship, sitting with Lin Dunn not just during games but before and after.
"We let her sit in on our staff meetings, sit in on coaches meetings, talking about why we did this and why we did that," Dunn said. "I really do think that benefited her because she saw the game from another perspective."
Sometimes a phrase repeated among members of a team sounds too convenient, the repetition a warning as to the sentiment's authenticity. But when coach and player use the same word in this instance, it's because it's the best word.
"I really got a different perspective on the game," January said. "I was able to be in the process from game preparation to in-game strategy, just seeing what the coaches see and kind of knowing what they're going to do. That helps as a point guard because you're supposed to be an extension of the coach out there on the floor. I think that really helped me, offensively, defensively, seeing rotations, exploiting and reading on-ball [screens], all those little things."
Few point guards are better served by grasping nuances. It's debatable whether it makes it easier or more difficult, but January's task is unlike that of many of her peers at point guard. She isn't the floor general, not when Catchings and Douglas rarely leave the court and exert well-earned control over the proceedings. But she must do many of the things floor generals do during the course of a game without the same rank and privilege.
"Given a different situation, she might have to be more vocal on a different team," Douglas said. "But she's gotten better [at verbalizing], and it's not in her nature anyway to be very verbal or to be very talkative, but she definitely, for sure, has gotten better at that. I feel like maybe this team has fit her good, where she doesn't have to -- she can lead by example and she doesn't have to use her voice as much when you have Tamika and I out there."
After all of that, the months spent rehabbing her knee, the perspective gained from the bench and putting mind and body together to return better than ever, the whole thing almost went up in flames just weeks before the playoffs. When the Fever visited the Sun for the final time in the regular season on Sept. 19, January wasn't on the court, wasn't on the bench and wasn't in the state of Connecticut. A concussion sustained two days earlier in a game against the Minnesota Lynx left January's playoff status in doubt. She didn't play again in the regular season, but with the Fever on the brink of elimination against the Dream, she averaged 20 points and six assists in the final two games.
"That brought back a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions," January said of the concussion. "To be at home watching them play Connecticut was terrible, but I knew I would be back from this. I knew I just had to be patient. I knew that when I came back, you've got to make the most of opportunities. Once again, it was just a reminder how much I missed the game and how much I loved being out there. When I got back out there, I was loving every moment of it."
It won't be easy for the Fever to get to where they want to go, but it helps having a point guard who knows her way around a challenge.