After winning three consecutive home games this week against the Connecticut Sun, the Seattle Storm and the Atlanta Dream, the Indiana Fever remain stuck in third place in the Eastern Conference. That's how tough the Eastern Conference is.
Indiana proved that at this point in the season, they are as good as the top teams in the WNBA. But they have yet to prove they are better. They have a chance this week to prove it, if they can beat the Seattle Storm in their Key Arena "fortress" on Friday. But the Storm should be far better prepared for Indiana's defense after losing 72-65 last Thursday.
For the Fever, the game with the Dream was fairly representative of its three-game homestand. All three games featured substantial double-digit Fever leads by mid-game, huge comebacks weathered by late game and all the right plays made down the stretch to win.
On Saturday in Indianapolis, the Fever were saved by the bell, as the Dream ran out of time to come back from a 55-41 halftime deficit.
"I wish we had one more minute on that clock," Dream head coach Marynell Meadors said. "If we had one more minute and one more timeout, I think the outcome might have been a little different. This team has a huge heart. They dug and they dug and they dug, 'til they got the thing really close."
It's not clear, however, that the Fever would have succumbed with more time. Unlike games the prior week, the Dream was never able to tie the score in the fourth quarter.
"People fail to realize the game of basketball is a game of highs and low," explained Fever forward Tamika Catchings. "You'll go on a streak where you are hitting, hitting, hitting. And then you might go on a slump for a little bit, hopefully not too long, but a couple shots where you don't hit."
Fever guard Katie Douglas said, "They're going to make runs, we're going to make runs. Hopefully, like you saw, our runs were a little bit longer than their runs tonight, and that's why we were able to get the win tonight."
Four developing factors have contributed to the Fever's recent wins.
First, anchored by Fever point guard Briann January (recently returned from injury), the bench platoon of Jessica Moore, Jessica Davenport, Shay Murphy and Shavonte Zellous continues to produce offensively and defensively.
"Our bench showed why we have the best bench in the league," boasted Catchings after defeating the Dream. "The starters had a lead, they came in and not only did they sustain it, they extended it. They came out with a lot of energy, high energy, hitting a lot of shots, getting steals, transition; got the Donkey Kong block in there, Jessica Davenport."
Second, the offense has re-focused on inside play and inside-outside passing as opposed to outside shooting and around-the-perimeter passing. The 55-point outburst in the first half of the Fever-Dream game shows what the Indiana offense is capable of and is working toward. A majority of those points came in the paint, where Tammy Sutton-Brown scored a season-high 16 points largely on layups. The team is actively looking for players in the post, players cutting to the basket without the ball, and ways to get into the paint.
Third, the Fever team defense has been able to stop other teams' offensive stars, frustrating Tina Charles, Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Angel McCoughtry.
"It's going to be a team defensive game," said Fever forward Ebony Hoffman. "It's not going to be one person playing a lock-up type of defense. It's going to be all of us helping each other and trying to get the job done."
The Fever held Connecticut Sun rookie star Tina Charles to just two points on 1-8 shooting with just four rebounds, both season lows by a large margin.
"Our whole team was focused on not letting Tina get good touches and I thought that was key for us," explained Dunn.
The Fever also limited the Seattle Storm offense to a season-low 65 points as their offense stagnated in misguided attempts to exploit mismatches on Lauren Jackson.
"What Indiana does is they switch a lot of screens." explained Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird. "That puts someone like Tully, January, even Catchings on Lauren is a mismatch for us to get the ball inside. But they’re not stupid. They know it’s a mismatch so they send a lot of people to [Jackson]."
Bird went on to say, "We shot ourselves in the foot. We forced it instead of taking what they gave us like we did at the beginning of the game."
When facing Atlanta, the Fever got out to their 55-41 first-half lead against the Dream with Angel McCoughtry on the bench for 9 minutes and 58 seconds of the half, having scored only six points and saddled with three fouls.
Importantly, the Indiana Fever's league-leading defense depends critically on intensity, focus and precision rotations.
"Any time you're a second late in this game, people are going to make plays," explained Douglas. The margin for error in Indiana's defensive schemes is slim.
Finally, Tamika Catchings' clutch plays late in the fourth quarter when the game is tied or close has made the most impact in securing the wins. Catchings will never be the Most Superlative Player, racking up ungodly points and rebounds like Lauren Jackson or Diana Taurasi. Catchings' game has never been about the boxscore or statistics, but about the game played on the court, hard work, a passion for defense and a will to win.
With the additional rest courtesy of the Fever bench, Catchings has been better able to pick her spots for transcendent play. For example, she broke the Connecticut Sun's back after a 60-all tie.
"Catchings was great down the stretch," said Connecticut Sun head coach Mike Thibault. "She made every play they need to make. Katie [Douglas] had a couple of shots, but Catchings' 12 points and five rebounds was huge."
"You have to point out Catchings," said Dunn. "She had that will to win. 'I'm gonna rebound. I'm going to defend. I'm not going to let you get anything easy.' When she raises her game defensively, it takes the rest of the team up."
"She's going to give you everything on both ends of the court. That's something we definitely need," said Sutton-Brown.
The paucity of defensive statistical modeling means that these statistics will uniformly fail to show Catchings' contributions to the Indiana Fever's success that can be witnessed in each game. She's not just the MVP for a winning team in the tough Eastern Conference, she's playing like the MVP of the league, whether she's recognized for it or not.
Against Atlanta, the Dream got within two points several times in the final six minutes. The Dream were down 91-89 with the ball and 10.9 seconds to go, but of course Catchings stole the ball.
"I saw the play develop, because we got burned five times during the game coming off the post player to help," said Catchings. "Whoever was driving didn't want to shoot it. They wanted to pass it to the post underneath. [So] stay low, sneak in and get it."
Catchings' steal, among other things, undermined Sancho Lyttle's superlative 20-point, 20-rebound game. The rebound total was Lyttle's career-high and a WNBA season-high. But all that didn't translate into a win.