- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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This is the fifth year that Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas have been playing together as Indiana Fever teammates, but they probably wouldn't call this season "pivotal." That sounds too heavy, and they don't want to carry that weight through the summer.
Sure, Douglas turned 32 in May, and Catchings will celebrate her 32nd birthday Thursday when Indiana is host to the Chicago Sky. Wear and tear from typically playing nearly year-round is an unavoidable concern in women's hoops. Plus, in her career, Catchings has dealt with two of the major injuries -- ACL and Achilles tendon tears -- that often plague basketball players.
But if the Fever's dual pillars can stay healthy, or relatively so, through the rest of this season, maybe it will bring them their first WNBA title, which is the biggest goal both have left in their basketball careers.
Admittedly, we're a long way from real title talk for anybody this season. However, when Catchings and Douglas take the court in San Antonio next weekend as starters in the All-Star Game, they hope it will be as Eastern Conference leaders. Which in itself would be notable, all things considered.
Until falling 80-70 to Minnesota on Friday, Indiana had won seven games in a row. The Fever put their streak together despite losing starting guard Briann January to an ACL injury in the midst of it. She was hurt June 28 against Phoenix, which some thought would leave the Fever too much in one of those "point-guard-by-committee" situations. But Erin Phillips, acquired in a three-team deal in April, may be coming into her own at a fortuitous time for Indiana.
Phillips, 26, had previously played just two full seasons in the WNBA, and didn't compete in the league at all last year as she trained with the Australian national team.
In her first nine games of this season, before January was hurt, Phillips never played more than 22 minutes in a game and scored in double figures just twice. In her four games since January's injury, Phillips has averaged almost 32 minutes and 11.3 points per game.
Jessica Davenport, who's been in the starting lineup for seven games, is having her best season yet statistically, averaging 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. Veteran Tangela Smith, who came to Indiana this season as a free agent, has as expected been a good veteran cog so far, averaging 6.3 points and and 3.2 rebounds.
But the bottom line, as usual with the Fever, has been the combination of Catchings (13.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Douglas (16.4, 4.3). While there are always quarrels about some of the All-Star starters who are voted in, no one is complaining about these two.
The East's issue is that there are two centers -- Connecticut's Tina Charles, who won the vote, and Chicago's Sylvia Fowles, the league's leading scorer -- who merit being All-Stars starters, while guard Angel McCoughtry this year may not. That's because McCoughtry had injury issues at the beginning of the season that have slowed her down.
Meanwhile in the West, there was more debate. San Antonio's Danielle Adams isn't the rookie who is starting, although she probably earned it. Instead, it's Minnesota's Maya Moore. Los Angeles' Candace Parker also was voted in as a starter, despite the fact that she's out with a knee injury and has played just seven games. Phoenix, which now has the longest active winning streak at six in a row, has Diana Taurasi as an All-Star starter, but not Penny Taylor.
Of course, the coaches' naming of the reserves Tuesday will remedy most of the so-called slights. It's going to be San Antonio's party, and whichever Silver Stars are picked as reserves will be the centers of attention.
And overall, when we look at the first half of the season, which is winding down this coming week, among the bigger stories are the Fever and their ability to potentially get another shot at a championship.
Indiana had that chance in Douglas' second season there, 2009, when the Fever lost in five games to Phoenix in the WNBA Finals. Falling short in a series they really thought they could have won ate away at Catchings and Douglas, but it also made them even more committed.
This has been a season impacted by big-name injuries, and the Fever felt that in losing January. But even without her, they have Catchings and Douglas, who are like experienced co-pilots working round-the-clock to reach a destination. The All-Star Game will be a brief, rewarding detour for them to enjoy.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.