KRAVITZ: Catchings refuses to let the Fever lose -- again

Tamika Catchings (WTHR file photo)
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Tamika Catchings knows the clock is ticking on her Hall of Fame career, knows this kind of opportunity to win a WNBA title may never come around again after Wednesday’s much-anticipated Game 5 at the Target Center.(And how appropriate that this classic series should be coming down to a Game 5?) So, one day after being down in the dumps after what she described as one of her worst games ever in a Game 3 loss, she showed up at Bankers Life the next day with her spirit and smile fully intact. And she made it clear to her teammates:

“We’re going to win this one,’’ she said. “We’re going to win.’’

Look at the box score after the Fever’s Game 4 75-69 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Sunday, and Catchings does not fill out all categories. She finished with just 10 points, had four rebounds, a shocking six turnovers and two blocked shots. But it was the way she came out for this game, going 3 for her first 3 to jump-start the Fever and its crowd, getting the steal, then later tying up Maya Moore and calling a brilliant timeout, she just made all the small plays that make her one of the biggest players ever to take part in the women’s game.

We are a little quick sometimes in sports to talk about glue players, about heart-and-soul athletes who make their teams better than they really are, but Catchings is truly one of them. She has been central to the rise of women’s basketball in this city for more than a decade, and now has the perpetually under-rated Fever just one victory from its second WNBA title since 2012. So many faces have changed since 2012. There was no Marissa Coleman. There was no Shenise Johnson. But there’s always been Catchings, who continues to simply will her team to continually stave off elimination and take that next step toward a championship.

“A lot of people were asking me about Tamika’s numbers and I’m like, `No, it’s not numbers,’‘’ Fever coach Stephanie White was saying after the game. “She’s tricking all you guys because it’s not the numbers. It’s the way she creates for her teammates, whether it be through hard-nosed play, whether it be through her extra possessions and toughness, whether it be through her spacing, whether it be what she’s saying in the huddle and the way she’s been coachable all season.

“I challenged her with a couple of her turnovers, and she responded, and she took it. So there are a lot of things that Tamika Catchings does that don’t show up on the stat sheet that we value as teammates and allow her teammates to be coached the same way that I coach her. ‘’

The Fever’s numbers don’t lie: The Fever are now 9-2 in playoff elimination games during their short but impressive history, and are now 5-0 this postseason. And if you’re ready to count them out Wednesday in Minnesota, you’re abjectly nuts. The Lynx have more raw talent; three Olympians to the Fever’s one. But the Fever have Catchings, and the Fever have the two best guards in this WNBA Final, specifically Briann January and Shenise Johnson.

The Fever won this one for one very simple reason: They were more aggressive, and they were more aggressive because Sylvia Fowles, the biggest player on the floor, was saddled with foul trouble most of the game. Head coach Stephanie White grew tiresome of her team going east and west and implored them to go north and south, and the result was a conga line of free throws. The Fever hit 25-of-29.

“They had one player (January) take more free throws (12) than our entire team (nine),’’ Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. And no, she didn’t sound like she was complaining.

Minnesota’s Maya Moore had it exactly right: “When you’re the more aggressive team, you deserve to get to the free-throw line more often.’’

There were a lot of basketball heroes for the Fever this night: Johnson scored 15 points. Coleman, who seems to hit every big perimeter shot, scored 14 points. January didn’t shoot well (she was 1-of-8) but had five assists, hit 11-of-12 free throws and controlled the pace of the game. And the Fever bench, like the Lynx bench in Game 3, was monstrous, scoring 23 points, including seven points by rarely-used Natasha Howard in just 7:27.

But Catchings made it all happen, even if it wasn’t always happening for her on the floor this particular night. It’s amazing how one of the game’s greatest athletes, and best corporate citizens, fails to enjoy the limelight the way her male counterparts continually do, but that’s another column for another night.

When she isn’t doing all the big things, she’s doing all the little things, and she’s often doing them when nobody is really noticing.

We spend a lot of time around here talking about Larry Bird and Ryan Grigson, the good, the bad and the ugly, but is there a more pedigreed executive in town that Kelly Krauskopf? This is her franchise’s third WNBA Finals in the last seven years, and you can easily make the case they haven’t had the best team in any of the three. But she finds the right pieces. She gets the right fits. And she adds players who play the game the way the Fever wants to play, the way the Pacers used to play when they were going to Eastern Conference Championships. (Remember those days?)

At halftime, White was apoplectic about the Fever’s eight first-half turnovers, but once they started treasuring the basketball and playing typically manic Indiana defensive basketball, the game turned and never turned back. The Fever enjoyed a 14-point third quarter lead and except for a late mini-collapse – “We played not to lose rather than to win,’’ Catchings said – the Fever had this game under control from the third quarter until the close-to-bitter end.

“Indiana played great,’’ Reeve said. “Played like a team that didn’t want their season to end. Played with great pace. They had to be thrilled with their offense, in particular, just the way they came at us. Frankly, it probably started with their defense. We started early in the game with silly turnovers. They were very opportunistic.

“Had a decent first quarter for us, and then it just kind of went downhill after that, and Indiana turned it up… It was all Indiana creating a pace, doing what they do, straight line drives. Straight line drives. Our defense was not as good as we need to be.’’

The Fever took a halftime lead, then went south the first few minutes of the third quarter, at which point, White, the Hoosier basketball legend, used some choice words to inspire her group.

“That’s a `You need to be in the huddle’ moment,’‘’ Catchings said, laughing. “Steph went off on us and basically just challenged us. She said, `You guys have 30 seconds to turn this thing around.’ Literally, we went out and she just lit a fire up on us, and she was just like, `This is the game to allow you an opportunity to play for a championship, and this is how you want to come out.’"

She smiled.

“Those are my nice words.’’

The Fever then went on a 22-8 run and it was over. Well, pretty much over. Except for those frantic final minutes, when the Fever forgot how the game was supposed to be played.

So it comes down to a Game 5 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, and that’s just as it should be. Too bad they don’t play a best of seven in the WNBA Finals. It’s been that good. And with the Fever’s superior guard play, and the will of Tamika Catchings, just about anything is possible. What? After all this, you’re going to bet against them?

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