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Caitlin Clark’s home debut for Fever spoiled by MVP performance from Liberty’s Breanna Stewart

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Caitlin Clark’s home debut in Indianapolis was spoiled by the reigning MVP, Breanna Stewart, who went off for 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks to lead the New York Liberty to a 102-66 win over the Indiana Fever in front of a sold-out crowd at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. 

Clark, who finished with nine points, seven rebounds and six assists in a solid outing, has awards in her future, but Thursday night’s contest was another early reminder that those are things that will likely come further down the road. 

An early bucket from Clark got the crowd on its feet, but she didn’t do much scoring after that. While the Liberty weren’t as aggressive or physical as the Connecticut Sun — no team is, to be fair — Betnijah Laney-Hamilton was hounding Clark on the perimeter and they sent multiple defenders her way. 

“Shout out to [Laney-Hamilton], shout out to [Kayla Thornton], really all of our guards that got lined up on her,” Stewart said. “They made it really difficult for her tonight. We had an awareness of where she was, and we followed the game plan.”

Clark had two turnovers in the first five possessions, but she settled down after that and handed out a number of assists in the opening quarter. Her playmaking would become a theme for the night, as she made a number of nifty feeds and was a bit unlucky to finish with ony six assists. 

The problem for the Fever was that even a few bad minutes can spell doom against a group as talented as the Liberty. Stewart, who played poorly herself in the Liberty’s opener two nights earlier, was on a mission. She scored or assisted on her team’s first 11 points. By the end of the first, she nearly had as many points (11) as the Fever did as a team (16), and the Liberty had a nine-point lead. 

Neither Stewart nor her teammates ever looked back. The final score was reflective of the game, and the only reason it didn’t turn into a laugher earlier is because the Liberty were missing some wide open looks. They were able to rebound a number of those bricks, however, and had no trouble scoring in the paint, where they shot 24 of 38 — more makes than the Fever had altogether. Stewart led the charge, with 18 of her 31 points coming around the basket. 

The Fever’s porous defense was a major issue last season, when they allowed 106.3 points per 100 possessions and finished 11th in defensive rating. While their schedule hasn’t helped matters to start this campaign, they’ve once again had trouble on that side of the ball.

Their inability to get stops has to be taken into account when discussing Clark’s lackluster start to her professional career. She is at her best in transition, where she feasts on open space as both a playmaker and scorer. Her outlet passing is arguably her best singular skill, and her ability to pull-up from deep gives defenders little chance when she has a full head of steam. 

Those opportunities have not materialized often enough for the Fever, who have only scored 16 fastbreak points through two games — last in the league. Acknowledging the time and score, it was no surprise that the best stretch on Thursday, for both Clark and the team, came late in the third when they were able to string together some stops and briefly got the deficit down to 11. 

Here’s a perfect example. Leonie Fiebich misses a 3-pointer, and four seconds later is forced to foul Clark, who was off to the races after taking an outlet pass from NaLyssa Smith. 

“We’ve gotta get stops,” Fever head coach Christie Sides said. “We’ve gotta find a way, they’ve gotta have a little bit more pride and we’ve gotta get stops so we can do what we’re really good at.” 

The loss drops the Fever, who got absolutely no help from the schedule makers, to 0-2. Things will eventually get easier for Clark and Co., but not any time soon. 

They’ve already played two title contenders, and will have to play both of them again in their next two games. In fact, nine of their first 13 games are against the Liberty, Sun, Seattle Storm and defending champion Las Vegas Aces — widely regarded as the four best teams in the league. 

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