The first two plays of the Indiana Fever's Wednesday matchup against the Seattle Storm pretty much set the tone for the rest of the game with back-to-back turnovers in a game almost decided on who lost the ball less.
"I thought with the exception of probably the first five minutes and the last five minutes it was a pretty good game for us," said Fever head coach Stephanie White. "We have to maintain a high energy level on the defense end of the floor for a forty minute ball game. I think we have to establish ourselves earlier.
There is such a small margin for error in this league, and we have to make sure our attention to detail is great."
Bird started play off and took the first possession off the jump. Crystal Langhorne then committed the first of the Storm's 20 turnovers, immediately followed by the first of the Fever's 16 turnovers.
Bird's pull-up jump shot a minute into the game began the scoring, and the rest of Seattle followed suit, going on a 7-point run before Indiana got on the board. The Storm also boasted a heightened chemistry between second-year teammates Bird and the team's leading scorer, Jewell Loyd, starting off a series of Bird dishes to Loyd layups that should be expected to continue throughout the season.
Erika Wheeler nabbed Indiana's first points, but it was Marissa Coleman who stepped up big to keep the Fever's first quarter hopes alive with a left-handed layup, gaining four back with seven minutes to play in the first.
Indiana never backed down, thanks in large part to the driving force of Coleman early on, who's step-back shot with 3 minutes left in the first tied the game at 14-14 and ended Seattle's lead for the rest of the game. Coleman had previously struggled to find her stride in the first five games of the season until opening up tonight with an 11-point performance and a 62.5 field goal percentage.
Then, just about everything began to break down for a Seattle team hoping for a strong showing during the first of 3 regular season matchups between these two teams.
The Fever stepped up their defensive play, eliminating the electric play of Loyd. An offensive performance by Tiffany Mitchell—the rookie out of South Carolina under legendary Dawn Staley—and Lynetta Kizer would all but seal the deal for Indiana.
"Just being aggressive, that's something I wanted to focus on this week in practice for the couple days we had, really being aggressive with the guards," Kizer said. "And it paid off today."
Seattle would show signs of life and the potential for a comeback, especially on the heels of Stewart, but would never fully complete the job.
Stewart led Seattle with 22 points and 8 rebounds, 7 of which were defensive. But the rookie forward would also contribute to 3 of the team's overall turnovers.
At the half, Seattle had racked up 12 turnovers and scored 6 points off Fever turnovers, while Indiana compared with 7 turnovers and 14 points off Storm turnovers. Indiana also had 25 points in bench scoring, went 62 percent on field goals and made 3 of 4 beyond the arc.
The second half seemed like it would mirror the first with both team's first two possessions resulting in turnovers, but Catchings broke Indiana's spell with an off-balance 3-pointer.
The Storm, however, would continue, committing three straight turnovers to start the third. A Fever 16-1 run after a Catchings' mid-range fader with seven minutes left in the quarter then led to a Fever 18-point lead.
Indiana center Erlana Larkins would commit her third foul of the game, drawing her into foul trouble and leading to a quick two on free throws by Loyd.
Wheeler then added three of her own on an open jump shot near the baseline, and another three-point beauty by Kizer increased Indiana's lead to 21.
"I feel a lot better, but I'm never comfortable," Wheeler said. "Meaning, never get comfortable, always stay in attack mode. I always try to just keep pushing and get better each game."
Seattle managed to narrow the lead again to 17 with the third quarter ending at a score of 55-72. The Storm would bounce back to start the fourth with a quick four, decreasing the deficit to 13, but Wheeler again came in clutch with a three to beat the shot clock.
The rookie Mitchell, in turn, nabbed a turnover on the journey back, drawing the foul on a missed layup. Larkins then fouled out on her third highly-contested illegal screen of the game, bringing Kizer back into the game.
The first matchup between these two teams highlighted big rookie play by Stewart and Mitchell, with Stewart leading the Storm in points and Mitchell scoring a career-high 19, falling short to the Fever's leading scorer, Kiser, who brought in her own career-high of 20.
The Storm's offense looked shaky, but it was their defense that seemed more tenuous, allowing Fever players too many mid-range openings to capitalize on.
"You know it's tough to win on the road," said Seattle head coach Jenny Boucek. "I think we have not learned how hard it is and how hard you have to play, and the energy you have to bring and it has to be sustained. If you let up for a second, it's a run. A minute and a half into the first half they go on a 7-0 run.
"We have a ways to go in a lot of ways. But if you don't have the energy that you need to have, the X and O's are just not going to matter."
Indiana fought well in the second and third quarters, managing to keep Seattle's leading scorer, Loyd, to a mere 11 points.
But while the Fever would at one point lead by 22 points, a fourth quarter slide narrowed the final margin to ten, and shed some light on a problem the team has seen before just this season against Dallas and Atlanta. This is something White needs to address before it becomes a trend.
"We have to be better about our consistency, our consistent effort, our consistent execution, sharing the basketball," White said. "I think at times when we don't know what to do we get a little stagnant on the offensive end. And we get a little selfish on the defensive end in terms of our rotations and worrying about 'our man' and not good team defense."
Bird remains the constant for Seattle, drawing in 6 assists, but the Fever's mid-game dominance proved too much, ending the contest at 85-75 and dropping the Storm to 2-4 on the season.
"We kind of had a let up in the second quarter, and that killed us for the entire game," Stewart said. "Obviously coming here, playing at Indiana is not an easy thing to do. This is a good team. With the WNBA schedule, it's quick turnarounds every night. So we play again Friday at home, so we have to be ready.
The Fever have won five of the last games against Seattle, and eight of the last games against Seattle at home.