To begin Saturday’s matinee, the New York Liberty won the tip-off and promptly got into position for their opening set on offense. But it’s what the Indiana Fever had practiced for the day before: battling through ball-screens. New York tagged both on Kelsey Mitchell, to allow room for their 3-point specialist Sabrina Ionescu. Yet Mitchell got through, forcing an out-of-bounds turnover. 

Mitchell connected beyond the arc on Indiana’s ensuing possession, assisted by Caitlin Clark

For that sequence to happen so fast — following the 21-point loss to the Connecticut Sun and the 36-point thrashing to the Liberty at home Thursday — the Fever showed promise in some progress. Head coach Christie Sides' post-practice message Friday, before the team's flight to New York for the home-and-home scheduling, was to not let teams punk the Fever repeatedly. 

And there they were, regaining the lead four minutes into the contest, on the road at last year’s WNBA runner-up. The Barclays Center was reportedly sold out too. The Fever eventually lost 91-80. But the defeat, albeit to open the season winless in three games, showed snippets of what the Fever’s offense could be like when at its finest form, with Clark running it at the point. 

“Tonight overall was just a better indication of exactly where we are,” Sides said. “We could not even figure that out the other night, and that was what was so frustrating. Now, we kind of have an idea of where we are. Kelsey and Caitlin are a problem, their speed is unbelievable. Once we have time where we can practice it… it's gonna be really hard for a defense to be able to stop.”

Mitchell, last year's leading scorer for the Fever, rejoined the starting lineup for the first time this season. She didn’t play in the team’s preseason and came off the bench in the two large losses. Mitchell had been rehabbing an injury. And really, she was the key. Teammate Erica Wheeler used to be in Mitchell’s starting spot, which looked clunky when two point guards were on the floor together. With Mitchell playing the 2 position, it opened Clark’s operating space at the top. 

Clark led the Fever with her young career-high 22 points, with six rebounds and eight assists. She also posted eight turnovers, but in the two prior games, Clark combined for two points and shot 1-for-7 in the first quarter. In Saturday’s opening quarter, Clark had 10 points on four made shots. Later in the third, she even connected on a midrange step-back jumper. Mitchell backed her up with 17 points. 

“I just came out and just played hard and I think that's going to be just my biggest focus going forward,” Clark said. “Our goal is we want to play fast. I think we're getting better at that. I think it'd be easier if we were able to string some more steps together. Like Kel [Mitchell] said in the locker room, like it's hard to play fast when we're just continuing to cancel each other's buckets.”

Fever’s poor defense

For how much better the offense looked to begin, the Fever's defense still got picked apart all game. The Liberty sank 12 triples by halftime, becoming the only team in WNBA history to eventually have all five starters hit multiple. New York ended with 15 on the afternoon. They've reached that single-game number only 12 other times before. Most, if not all, were open looks.

Toward the end of the first quarter, Ionescu did her best Caitlin Clark impression, pulled up from deep off the dribble and made it. Midway through the second, Ionescu fake-passed to the corner in transition, Clark had to take the bait, and the Liberty starter drained her fourth 3-pointer without anyone nearby. Clark was Indiana’s primary source for 3-pointers. She shot 3-for-6 in the first half, but fizzled out to go 1-for-4 in the second. The trade-off was Clark’s four fewer turnovers. 

Like the past two games, the Fever’s third-quarter scoring run got them back into it. Mitchell’s 3-pointer cut the deficit to 12 points at the start of the fourth, but Clark wasn’t in for that stretch, having played almost nine minutes in the third. In Indiana’s loss versus the Liberty Thursday, it gave up 48 points in the first half. New York scored 57 points by halftime Saturday to lead by 20. 

“I think for us it's about — this is the professional league,” Mitchell said. “Like, I don't know what people expect or what they're looking for. But this is going to take a little time. And I think that with us and with what we're trying to build, it's only right that we kind of take these moments and utilize them. Us playing against the best of the best is only how we’re gonna get better, right.” 

Losing by 21, then 36, then by only 11 Saturday, the Fever are inching toward the win column.