Caitlin Clark is trying to give herself grace during a rocky first week in the WNBA

INDIANAPOLIS — The moment was set for Caitlin Clark on Thursday. 17,274 fans packed a sold-out Gainbridge Fieldhouse — the Fever’s third-largest crowd for a regular season game — and were ready for the debut of their newest No. 1 overall pick.

The fans had been around the arena for hours, partying outside in anticipation. The buzz was palpable. Everything was pointed toward a memorable night…

…except the New York Liberty playing the role of rude guests.

For the second time in as many games, Indiana was matched up against a team that made at least the semifinals in last season’s playoffs. And for the second time in as many games, they looked every bit the young team they are, in many of the worst ways.

New York never trailed on Thursday and led by double digits nearly throughout. A 12-0 run from the hosts to end the third quarter, which included seven points from Clark, had the Fever within 11 heading into the fourth and gave the home fans the brief illusion of a fantastic finish.

But New York slammed the door shut on that dream, outscoring Indiana 35-10 in the final frame to hand the Fever a lopsided, 102-66 loss.

It’s been the same script for the first two games for Clark and the Fever; so much promise, with little of it delivered upon. The WNBA did Indiana no favors out of the gate, handing them four games against the Liberty and Sun — not just two contenders from last season, but also two of three best defenses — to start the year.

The result has been an Indiana team that’s looked as out-of-sync and young as it is. Lapses in concentration have been punished repeatedly. Good ideas have gone awry with poor execution. And moments fans spend waiting for Clark to deliver have drifted by with little more than a peep.

That’s been the challenge the Fever have had to deal with, integrating a rookie point guard who has been a member of the franchise for a month into a young roster with seven of their 12 players aged 24 or under. And they’ve had to do it against the league’s elite.

“That’s the WNBA, and that’s what we deal with,” head coach Christie Sides said postgame. “[Clark] is a high-volume scorer, shooter. She’s our point guard, so now our players who have been here, it takes time to get used to how she plays, it takes time for her to get used to how they play. It’s just a process.”

The process has had plenty of road bumps so far. After a hot-and-cold first game saw her come alive in the second half, Thursday was far more one-sided in the wrong direction. Clark finished with just 9 points on 2-8 shooting on Thursday, going 1-7 from deep. While she did add 7 rebounds and 6 assists, it was still a relatively quiet night.

That was by design as the Liberty, taking the script from the Sun, hounded Clark for 94 feet. They threw doubles at her out of pick and rolls and never let her find a rhythm, evidenced by her only getting up eight shots. The last time she didn’t reach double figures in shot attempts was more than a full calendar year ago, in February of 2023

WNBA: New York Liberty at Indiana Fever

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Postgame, Clark didn’t speak to the media, with the organization electing not to select her as one of the two players made available, both a sign of her struggle to be one of the most impactful Fever players on the night, and a natural result of how she’s constantly being placed in front of audio recorders and cameras in this young season.

Even without speaking to the media postgame, Clark spoke to reporters three separate times on Thursday alone. It’s an unrelenting spotlight Clark is under, with the lights certainly brighter on nights like Thursday when the topic of conversation will almost assuredly all be about her struggles.

In her absence, though, her teammates defended their point guard, acknowledging it wasn’t on Clark alone to break out of her struggles.

“People are playing her hard,” said Fever forward Katie Lou Samuelson. “People are playing her aggressively. We can do a better job of trying to help her get some space and help her get some freedom. We trust her and want to keep figuring out how to work with her in the best way.

“I think we can continue to help her get some space because teams are really, really, really hounding her full court,” Samuelson continued. “We have to do some stuff as a unit to flow better with that.”

There was always going to be a learning curve for Clark. The same moves that worked against Big Ten defenses and 16-seeds in the NCAA tournament two months ago are meeting much more resistance in the WNBA.

Betnijah Laney-Hamilton, who took the lion’s share of the responsibility defensively on Clark on Thursday, was Second Team All-Defense last season. As a team, the Liberty ranked third in defensive rating, one spot below the Sun. After playing Connecticut on Tuesday and New York on Thursday, the Fever will face New York again on Saturday, and then Connecticut one more time on Monday.

To call the schedule “not kind,” as Sides referred to it during the preseason, would be an understatement. The defensive pressure has led to Clark racing around the court off screens trying to get open to little avail. Her patented step back has, at times, created space for looks she’d normally knock down.

But those rare open looks that left fans on the edge of their seat, ready to explode for a highlight play on Thursday, aren’t going down yet. It’s led to frustrations, naturally. Midway through the third quarter after picking up her fourth foul, Clark went to the bench and slammed a towel against her chair multiple times.

It’s been far from the dream start that she, the fans and the multiple media companies that have broadcasted her games so far, envisioned.

“It’s a process and she’s going to be fine,” Sides said. “She’s figuring it out. She just needs to get a little bit of confidence right now. I think she’s taking some shots that she would normally knock down. Betnijah Laney is one of the best defenders in the league. They’re making it really hard on her. We’ve got to a better job of finding ways to get her some easier, more open looks.”

Players rarely speak to the media before games, but in yet another sign of how many spotlights are on her both on and off the court, and the demand for her every thought, Clark did speak with reporters prior to her home debut. There, in a bit of unintentional foreshadowing, she talked about Tuesday’s game and the dichotomy between it being a memorable moment for her as her WNBA debut as well as it being a night she struggled with 10 turnovers.

“It was still obviously great,” Clark said. “I don’t beat myself up too much over one performance. I think that would be a little bit silly. Do I wish I would have played a little better? Absolutely. But at the same time, I have great perspective on everything that happens. I think the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing and there were some moments where I was not happy with how I played and how I performed and how my team performed.

“But that’s just life, that’s just basketball. Like I said, giving yourself some grace.”

It’s great perspective from someone barely a month into their professional career, the type of even-keeled mindset that great players have to have. It’s one of the few signs of that potential Clark has gotten to display so far.

These moments are going to continue to come for Clark and the Fever. Given the patience and perspective she has shown, she’ll eventually deliver, as great players do.

But it’s going to take a bit more time. Perhaps even a little more than she, the Fever, WNBA fans, or even the league’s broadcast partners that put nearly all of her games on national television envisioned.

You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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