Some of the most refreshing moments in professional sports are when you see an expression of emotion from a player that reminds you just how much they enjoy the privilege of dedicating their life to a sport.
If you were somehow unaware of how much Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings genuinely loves the game of basketball, watching her press conference after the Fever qualified for the WNBA Finals with a 72-67 victory over the defending champion Detroit Shock should let you know what she’s about.
She doesn’t appear to think it’s just a business. She is not performing some contrived public persona for the sake of our entertainment. Despite the team’s slogan – "Our time is now" – she doesn’t outwardly express a feeling of entitlement to compete for the honor of being called the best.
There is something fundamentally genuine, humble, and sincere about Catchings that comes through in both her words and demeanor.
This is a player who seems excited to step on the court every night and compete. And even as arguably the team’s biggest star, it is apparent that she is willing to do whatever it takes to help her team win.
It is Catchings’ approach to the game of basketball that seems to best embody the ethic and spirit of the Indiana Fever this season – simply doing whatever is it takes to win without the fanfare of a flashy offense or legendary stars.
The Fever are more than the WNBA's best defense
The WNBA Finals match between the Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury will probably be construed as a match-up of the league’s best defense facing the league’s best offense.
While that is definitely a reasonable framing for the Mercury who play an historically high speed, framing the Fever as solely a defensive team is only a small part of what makes them successful.
WNBA.com’s Finals preview seems to reflect the dominant assumption – which is not entirely wrong – that the Fever play strong team defense and are highly dependent on MVP candidates Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas for offense.
While Catchings will have her hands full with Taurasi, Douglas will likely draw the assignment of guarding 2007 WNBA Finals MVP Pondexter. Unfortunately for the Fever, their success on offense is highly dependent on Catchings and Douglas, so the amount of energy they have to expend chasing Taurasi and Pondexter and how that affects their play on the other end of the court will likely be a huge factor in this series.
But the Fever's defense isn't all about Catchings and Douglas. Coach Lin Dunn has stressed defense with her entire team all year, and it's a commitment to that philosophy more than anything else that has the Fever still alive this time of year. Tully Bevilaqua is one of the better defensive points guards in the league, as evidenced by her inclusion in the All-Defensive First Team, while Sutton-Brown is a top-notch shot-blocker, currently posting an average of two rejections per game in the postseason.
However, if you watched their Eastern Conference Finals performance against the defending champion Detroit Shock, it is clear that the Fever are more than a strong defense and two woman offense.
The Fever might actually be playing the best all-around basketball in the league this season. They really cannot match the slogan, "We got Diana and you don’t" with any single individual, but as a team they play well enough that they can play with almost anyone.
This is a team that finds ways to win, both as individuals and as a collective.
Indianapolis Star writer David Woods elaborated on this point, alluding to the fact that their balance is not only a balance of offense and defense, but a balanced attack in terms of who is making contributions.
They featured balance. On a night in which Tamika Catchings scored one field goal, the Fever found points elsewhere. Besides Sutton-Brown's 17, Douglas scored 14, and Catchings and Hoffman had 10 each.
Bevilaqua, who had gone 1-for-13 in this series, sank successive 3-pointers in the third quarter when the Fever were fragile.
They received boosts off the bench from rookie Briann January, who had eight points and four assists, and veteran Tamecka Dixon. Dixon scored the Fever's first five points of the fourth quarter.
Atlanta Dream forward Chamique Holdsclaw made a similar point in her post-game comments on NBA TV that even though Catchings had a tough game, the rest of the team picked up the slack.
Although Holdsclaw is certainly correct from a scoring standpoint, the most striking thing about this team is the way players find ways to contribute even if they are not scoring. It’s not that they are a team of glorified role players, but they almost instinctively find roles to fill depending upon matchups, their performance, and the game plan.
However, what strikes me about Catchings’ game – and this perhaps embodies something about the Fever – is that even when she had an off shooting night, she managed to contribute to the team in other ways.
Catchings was not only 8-8 from the free throw line thus making up for missed shots in that way, but also had 8 rebounds and 3 steals, and was largely responsible for Shock guard Deanna Nolan’s 6-18 shooting performance (in addition to the Fever’s swarming double-teaming defense).
For the most part, this analysis could be extended to the entire team. If we look at player contributions using David Sparks’ credit formula, they got relatively even contributions from a number of players.
In a sport in which conventional wisdom is normally that coaches should shorten their rotations, the Fever played nine players, eight of which played 10 minutes or more.
January wasn’t just responsible for scoring points, but her ability to drive to the basket added a different dimension to the Fever’s offense, one that was sorely lacking last season. In the Fever’s two wins, January had 7 assists and 1 turnover, which is a nice assist to turnover ratio, but also a very good pure point rating of 8.3. Defensively, January was a huge part of the Fever’s ability to contain Shock rookie guard Shavonte Zellous.
Ebony Hoffman also had an off shooting night, but her hustle on the offensive boards in the second half was a huge part of the Fever’s effort to finish the game. You could certainly argue that Sutton-Brown’s scoring was her biggest contribution, but more importantly her playoff performance is improved across the board from the regular season.
Although Tamecka Dixon’s numbers don’t stand out, the plays that she made at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth were a huge boost, prompting Fever coach Lin Dunn to call her the team’s MVP
But who was the MVP for both the game and the series?
Despite the emotional boost, if we look at Sparks’ credit stats, Dixon might have been the Fever’s least effective player statistically.
However, if we look at a combination of the Sparks’ credit stats and each player’s plus/minus stats for the entire series, Catchings was probably the team’s MVP for this game, despite a poor shooting night (click here to see those stats).
That to me says more about Catchings’ game than anything else – she has a significant impact on the game even when her production does not appear to be that high. Not surprisingly, the same could be said about her contribution for the series (click here to see the credit stats for each game of the series).
What will make Catchings hard to stop is that unlike many of the league’s stars, the key is not to simply take her out of the game offensively. Even in an off game she will find ways to contribute to her team. It’s impressive and lends some support to the idea that Catchings – not teammate Katie Douglas or Phoenix Mercury wings Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi – is truly the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player.
As a team that has spent most of the season on the brink of extinction, the Fever are an easy team to root for, both because of the way they play and all that a championship would mean to the franchise.
- Is anyone else surprised that January didn’t make the All-Rookie team? I am. And I’m not sure all five of those players were legitimately better than her this season.
- Shock guard Alexis Hornbuckle was undoubtedly the team’s MVP for Game 3, finally showing some of the potential that she’s only given us flashes of in the past. She is clearly not the ideal solution at point guard for a championship team, but she did an admirable job defensively and has clearly improved her playmaking abilities since her rookie season.
- If you enjoy the idea of quantifying contributions to the game using Sparks’ formula, the disparity in bench production between teams in Game 3 is particularly interesting – the Fever’s combined for 21.29% of the credit for the game while the Shock bench earned -9.19 of the credit.
- I did a bit of the double take when looking at the fourth quarter free throw stats: 17-19 in the fourth quarter and it wasn’t just at the end of the game, but throughout the quarter. For all the talk about how the Fever are inept on offense, they are apparently able to get the free throw line – they had a free throw rate of 52.8%.