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Caitlin Clark, Indiana Fever hope 4-day break can help jumpstart season after early struggles

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives as Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd (24) defends during the second half of a WNBA basketball game, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Seattle. The Storm won 85-83. (AP Photo/Jason Redmond)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever finally got the break they needed this week.

Now everyone’s ready to see if four days off will help change their results.

Despite Clark’s selection as WNBA’s rookie of the month for May, she and her new teammates have dealt with all kinds of frustrations — a brutally challenging schedule, limited practice time, the rookie’s seemingly league-wide unwelcoming committee, even sub-par play.

Clark’s biggest fans and the Fever’s most loyal supporters might not have anticipated such a rough start for the WNBA’s highest-profile rookie in years, but the chance to relax, recharge and regroup might be just what everyone needed.

“I think honestly just getting away from basketball, getting some sleep, taking care of my body,” Clark said, explaining what she did on her two off days before returning to a rare practice Wednesday. “I play the point guard spot like I haven’t gotten a lot of practice time with my team and that’s really hard, trying to navigate an offense and you’ve haven’t had much practice time together.”

Statistically speaking, it’s hard to quibble with Clark’s start.

She’s only the third WNBA player to top 100 points, 30 rebounds and 30 assists in her first six games and leads this year’s talented rookie class in scoring (17.6 points), assists (6.6), field goals (46) and free throws (42). She even matched Diana Taurasi’s 3-pointers made total (24).

But it’s Clark’s glaring problems that have drawn the most attention.

Her 59 turnovers lead the league, she picked up technical fouls in three straight home games, putting her nearly halfway to earning a one-game suspension, and, at times, she has complained publicly about calls not going her way. Being 2-9 hurts, too, and the way she’s been treated by opponents has created a national stir, too.

Saturday afternoon’s run-in with Chicago Sky guard Chennedy Carter created such a buzz that UConn coach Geno Auriemma told ESPN he believes Clark is being “targeted” and getting “beat up” — certainly not the type of treatment many want to see involving a potentially a game-changing star.

“She’s a human and I think she deserves to give herself some grace, and I think a lot of people around this world should, too,” Indiana guard Kelsey Mitchell said. “Not only is she human, she’s a 22-year-old kid, technically, and I think that as she’s going to transition, there’s going to be things she’ll experience that comes with time. I think the world should give her some grace.”

Indiana’s historically relentless schedule hasn’t helped. The Fever played 11 games in 20 days, the most compact opening schedule since the Washington Mystics had 11 games in 20 days to open the 2007 season.

Indiana’s schedule also had two back-to-backs in one week with three of the four games on the road and they are 0-6 against the league’s top three teams compared with 2-3 against everyone else. And with virtually every game on national television, critics are everywhere.

Plus, Clark is less than two months removed from finishing a 39-game college season that resulted in a second straight national runner-up finish with Iowa.

All of it, especially the lack of practice time, had coach Christie Sides cringing

“I don’t know if I’ve experienced anything like it ever in my 12 years of coaching in this league,” Sides said. “Just to have that grind of a schedule, two back-to-backs against the two best teams in the league. It’s just really tough. You’ve just got to keep your team together whenever they’re going through something like this.”

Being the center of attention is another new phenomenon for most of Indiana’s players.

The Fever hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2016 and has only posted more than six wins in two of the last six seasons.

Clark’s performances, though, made sellouts the norm and spurred huge television ratings throughout her college career and most expected more of the same in the WNBA.

While home ticket sales for Indiana’s first five games already have surpassed last season’s 20-game total, the average home crowd has quadrupled to 16,571 and opponents have been moving games to larger venues to accommodate Clark’s fans, the realities of this season have taken a toll.

Clark has lost nearly as many games this season as she did in her last two college seasons combined; she and her teammates have, at times, looked out of sync; and the daily media responsibilities as the league’s newest star are far greater than anyone else in the league.

Will a four-day break be enough for Clark and the Fever to right this season?

“Chemistry hasn’t been there so hopefully we’ll continue to grow our connection a little bit better,” said Clark, who noted last weekend that Indiana hadn’t practiced in three weeks. “Hopefully, we’ll get our legs under us a little bit more, make a few more shots, we probably haven’t shot it as well as we would have liked. But I think overall, just our chemistry and how we’re working together will get better.”