by Aaron Fischman / @Aaronhartf

On June 14, the Indiana Fever had the honor of visiting the White House in commemoration of their WNBA title last season. They were being honored as champions—and rightfully so after their 3-1 series victory over the back-to-back Western Conference champion Minnesota Lynx in October—but weren’t exactly playing like ones. As the Fever prepared to meet President Obama and his family, they came in with a 1-4 record and four straight losses, three of which came at home.

Two days later, Indiana was outplayed by the Washington Mystics in the final quarter and lost by four points. They hit rock bottom after losing two more games and falling to 1-7.

The Fever have been ravaged by injuries throughout the entire 2013 campaign. During their second game, Katie Douglas went down with a bulging disk in her back and has been sidelined ever since. To put Douglas’ absence in perspective, she had been one of Indiana’s top-two scorers in each of the team’s previous five seasons, dating back to ‘08. In each season, she never missed more than three games; to date, she’s missed 23 of her team’s 25 games.

Veteran guard Erin Phillips missed the first 13 games (torn meniscus), center Jessica Davenport is out for the season (stress fracture in left leg), guard Jeanette Pohlen couldn’t begin her season until August (left ACL tear suffered in Finals) and now much-improved Shavonte Zellous has missed the team’s last four games with plantar fasciitis.

According to Fever head coach Lin Dunn, the injuries have been “very frustrating, very irritating [and] very disruptive.” After beginning 1-7, the team could have easily folded and called it a season, but there was not a chance of that happening, especially from a roster led by eight-time All-Star Tamika Catchings.

“With a player like [Catchings], she leads by example,” said Zellous. “When you have your leader set the tone, I think everything falls in place. When you see her working hard, you have no choice but to work hard and do what she does.”

The team also altered its approach. “I think just re-shifting our focus, not necessarily the wins and the losses but more so trying to continue to get better,” said Catchings. “We had a lot of players that had to step into roles that they weren’t used to being into. So I felt like as they got more and more comfortable, the confidence started getting higher.”

The team reeled off 10 wins over its next 14 games, reaching .500 for the first time since the opening week of the season.

“The theme for us was to focus on what we have,” said Dunn, “not what we don’t have. Let’s focus on the people we have and then we challenged the backups to get better.”

And the “backups” certainly did improve.

By most accounts, Zellous, who filled in nicely for Douglas in last year’s Finals, is the leading candidate to win Most Improved Player of the Year. Although Zellous started 31 games last season, without Douglas in the lineup this season, her minutes have increased by nearly 10 minutes per game without any drop-off in efficiency. Her points per game have doubled from 7.5 to 15.0, her field goal and three-point shooting percentages have increased and she’s committed just 1.9 turnovers in 31.9 minutes per night.

“We’ve had to have people step up,” said Catchings, “and Z’s [been] one of those. You look at last year, just how she finished the season with the playoffs and then coming back [this season].”

Karima Christmas is another player who’s been counted on much more heavily, but has managed to rise to the occasion. She came into the season as something of a journeywoman, having spent her first two WNBA seasons with three teams and never logging more than 12 minutes per game. This season she’s playing more than 27 minutes per game and contributing 8.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals per contest.

“Christmas went from being the 11th player to starting,” said Dunn. “Yeah, that’s scary. Isn’t it?”

Zellous added, “Once injuries went down and she [Christmas] knew she had to play, I think her confidence level went high, and she’s doing an unbelievable job of rebounding, scoring, [and doing] whatever it takes for us to get a win.”

This season’s Eastern Conference is wide open, especially seeds No. 2 through 5, which are only separated by four and a half games. As of press time, the Fever cling to the fourth and final playoff spot, but the New York Liberty are hot on their heels, just one game behind.

Adversity has reared its ugly head again, however. Indiana has lost three in a row, as Zellous has been out with plantar fasciitis.

“Zellous being out is really hurting us,” noted Dunn. “We lose 15 points, we lose her defense, we lose her attacking the rim, we lose her getting to the free-throw line, posting up, we lose her energy and we miss her a lot.”

Plantar fasciitis is often caused by overuse, and for that reason, Dunn said the team is being patient with Zellous. They don’t want to rush her back only to further injure their second-leading scorer.

“We’re going to have to find a way to steel ourselves into the playoffs and get her healthy at the same time,” said Dunn.

At 11-14, even if Indiana were to win its final nine games, the Fever are guaranteed their worst record since ’08, Dunn’s first season with the team that resulted in a 17-17 finish. Ever since, Dunn’s squad has won at least 21 games per season.

Catchings won’t stress over wins and losses, as long as her team can get into the postseason: “Hopefully Katie will be back soon, and we’ll go into the playoff hunt. Once you make the playoffs, it doesn’t really matter one through four where you stand. It’s just a matter of getting in there.”

She knows, however, that merely getting in won’t be easy, considering the parity out East. According to Catchings, the team needs to improve its consistency “rebounding, taking care of the ball, and then just continuing to play together.”

The entire team would agree that the season’s been a grind, and at times, injuries have begotten injuries. For instance, Dunn believes that because her team has played so many games with only eight active players, the healthy players’ increased minutes have led to even more injuries. (Zellous’ plantar fasciitis may have been caused by nearly 32 minutes of action per game.)

Obstacles aside, Catchings won’t let the defending champions surrender. “She’s a competitor in high school, she’s a competitor in college, she’s a relentless competitor in the pros, and so she sets the standards,” Dunn said of Catchings. “You’re never gonna give up, you’re never gonna quit, you’re not gonna get down, we’re gonna adapt to this situation and we’re gonna keep fighting.”

What other option do they have?