There is almost no surer way to cool down a team than to write about how on fire it is. That said, with apologies to the Indiana Fever, we must say they are scorching right now. They're on a six-game winning streak, and have won nine of their 10 games since the All-Star break in late July.
When you examine how the Fever are doing it, the answers are different from game to game. Sometimes it's been the players you expect to have big performances. Other times, it's been role players stepping forward right when they're needed. It's also been a mix of both.
The bottom line is that the Fever seem to have the right vibe now, and it has them knocking on the door of first place in the Eastern Conference.
After the Fever's 80-79 victory Sunday over visiting New York, the East race got even tighter. The Liberty remain in first at 18-8, with Indiana at 17-9 and Chicago at 17-11. The Fever have won eight straight home games, and have two more this week at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: Wednesday against Los Angeles, and Friday against Atlanta.
Fever coach Stephanie White described the victory over New York like this: "We had five players in double figures. We had tremendous balance. We did a really good job against a terrific rebounding team. We just found a way to win, and I was really proud of our team."
The Fever can very briefly catch their breath and be happy about what they've done since a 106-82 loss to Chicago on Aug. 4. Because it's been a very impressive run.
That loss on the road to the Sky perhaps was, strange as it sounds, a catalyst for the Fever. It was the most points and the highest shooting percentage (63.2) that Indiana had allowed all season. It was their fourth loss to Chicago in 2015, as the Sky swept the regular-season series with Indiana for the first time.
White said after that game, "When we play with a tough defensive mentality, we can be a very good team. But when we don't, we struggle."
Indiana had won three in a row before stumbling at Chicago, so it wasn't as if the Aug. 4 loss was a rock-bottom moment or anything. But it was a strong message to the Fever about how they needed to play to be successful. Indiana isn't going to have the exact same identity under White that it did under Lin Dunn, who retired after last season. But the Fever still have to defend at a certain level, and that's what they didn't do against the Sky.
They bounced back with an Aug. 7 victory over Atlanta in which they totally turned around the dynamic of their loss to Chicago. This time, it was Indiana that scored 106 points, while holding the Dream to 77. Then after winning 73-62 at Washington on Aug. 11, Indiana had a potentially very tricky road trip to the West Coast: Phoenix, Los Angeles and Seattle in six days' time.
But that brought three more victories, all by double digits, with the Fever scoring in the 70s in each game and letting their defense do the rest. Along the way were big moments by players like Lynetta Kizer (19 points vs. the Mercury), Briann January (16 points vs. the Sparks) and Shenise Johnson (16 points vs. Storm).
The Fever's top scorers throughout this season have been old reliable Tamika Catchings, who in her next-to-last year in the WNBA is averaging 13.0 PPG, and Marissa Coleman, who's found a home in Indy (11.4 PPG).
"When we play with a tough defensive mentality, we can be a very good team. But when we don't, we struggle." Fever coach Stephanie White
Johnson, acquired in a February trade with San Antonio, is having the best of her four seasons in the WNBA, averaging 11.3 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 47.4 percent from the field.
Natalie Achonwa, who had to sit out what would have been her first pro season in 2014 with a knee injury, is in the running with former Notre Dame teammate Jewell Loyd of Seattle for WNBA Rookie of the Year. The Fever were without Achonwa for three games from Aug. 7 to 16, as she was helping Team Canada win a berth in the 2016 Summer Olympics. For the season, Achonwa is averaging 8.4 points and shooting 53.6 percent from the field.
You get the sense that this is "classic Indiana" -- a kind of blue-collar team that's still built around future Hall of Famer Catchings -- and that's a formula that has worked over the long haul. The franchise is on a streak of 10 consecutive playoff appearances, and strongly in position to make it 11.
Indiana has tried to give the 36-year-old Catchings as much rest as possible. She's averaging 26.2 minutes per game, similar to last year's 26.9. Prior to 2014, Catchings had averaged more than 30 minutes per game in all but one season: 27.8 in 2008, when she was dealing with an injury during an Olympic year.
After scoring six points on 2-of-11 shooting in that Aug. 4 loss to Chicago, Catchings has scored 14 or more points in five of the Fever's past six games. Even in her roughest offensive game during that stretch -- 2-of-11 for four points at Phoenix -- she still got nine rebounds, played 31 minutes, and was part of a key victory on the road. Catchings also moved into second place on the WNBA's career rebounding list in that Mercury game, passing Tina Thompson. Now with 3,096 rebounds, Catchings trails only Lisa Leslie's 3,307.
The Fever are still dealing with Erlana Larkins' left leg injury -- she hasn't played since Aug. 11 -- but the team's depth is showing up huge during this winning streak.
There are still eight games left, and we've seen things change drastically on a dime in the WNBA. But right now, the Fever are the league's hottest team, and they're doing it in the collective way that has been Indy's trademark.