- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Tamika Catchings talks about playing in Game 3 on Tuesday despite being injured.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tamika Catchings has been through this before. Wow, has she ever.
The senior season at Tennessee that ended early because of a knee injury. Three consecutive years (2006, '07, '08) of losing to Detroit in the WNBA playoffs. Catchings missed 13 games during the 2007 WNBA regular season with a plantar fascia injury in her left foot. Then, during the playoffs that year, she suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.
One big breakthrough came in 2009, when Catchings and the Indiana Fever made the WNBA Finals. But they fell in five games to Phoenix. Last year, Indiana lost to New York in the conference semifinals.
At the start of this summer, Catchings thought maybe the Fever had the right formula to win it all. Then guard Briann January was hurt and lost for the season. Still, Catchings was confident, especially as the Fever finished first in the Eastern Conference regular-season standings.
Indiana beat New York in the first round of the playoffs this year. And the East finals got off to a great start Thursday, as Catchings was announced as the league's MVP and the Fever won Game 1 of the series with Atlanta.
Everything since then, though, hasn't been so good for the Fever. Indiana lost Game 2 in Atlanta on Sunday, and Catchings went down with a painful foot injury in the fourth quarter. She had to be carried off the court, and her status for the decisive Game 3 at Conseco Fieldhouse was unknown until the game began Tuesday.
"I was just trying to get ready to play, trying to put myself in the best position so I could be out there for the team," Catchings said. "You look at it, and you don't know if it's a positive or a negative."
Meaning she was worried that she wouldn't do enough to help the Fever if she was on the court. It turned out, though, that nothing Indiana did on this night would be enough. The Fever lost 83-67 to a Dream squad that forced 18 turnovers and largely put the game away with a third quarter in which Atlanta outscored the Fever 22-12.
Catchings did not start, but entered the game to a standing ovation at the six-minute mark of the first quarter. She ended up playing just more than 24 minutes, going 2-of-6 from the field and scoring six points. She had five rebounds and three steals.
But even though she said she felt fine, Catchings was clearly limited to a degree. She said she completely tore the plantar fascia in her right foot -- the similar injury in her left foot in 2007 was a partial tear -- and that she was unsure she could play until she got the OK at game time.
"We've been doing a lot of different things to get the swelling out and make it as comfortable as possible," Catchings said. "Being out there, I felt it a little bit. But once the adrenaline gets going, you only really feel it when you're back on the bench.
"One of the things I didn't want to do is be out there limping around. I did not want to jeopardize anything for the rest of my career or hurt anything else. When I got out there and got moving, it felt good, and the doctor cleared me. They made a special insert for my shoe and then numbed it up [via injection] a little bit."
The Fever tried to ride on the emotion the players and fans clearly felt about Catchings at least being able to play when things had looked so dire Sunday. And that energy worked for the first half, after which the Dream led just 39-35.
But Atlanta took over in the third quarter, and the Fever had no other gear to go to. Indiana coach Lin Dunn complained a lot about the officiating after the game. But it was clear, on a night when the Fever's best player was at limited capacity and no one else went off for a really big game, that Atlanta was just better than Indiana.
Katie Douglas tried very hard to make up the difference for Catchings, and she did have team highs of 16 points and nine rebounds. But Douglas made just 6-of-18 from the field and was one of three Fever starters who had four turnovers. Tammy Sutton-Brown was the only other Fever player to score in double figures (11 points).
"Tamika is a good friend of mine, so I just wanted to make sure she was OK," Sutton-Brown said of her thoughts before the game. "When it came to whether she would or would not play, I just believed strongly that we could get the job done with the players we have. We knew we'd have to truck on, with or without her.
"I wanted to be certain that she couldn't do any more damage by playing on it, and she said she couldn't. She's just one of those people, her will is so strong. She wanted to be out there and help. She wasn't necessarily herself at times. But she's someone who's going to give you 100 percent no matter what."
That Catchings gave it everything she had was quite evident. The problem was with how much she could realistically do at nowhere near 100 percent healthy. But Catchings wasn't using her injury afterward as the reason the Fever lost.
"The three things we talked about were turnovers, defensive rotation and rebounding," Catchings said. "They played a great game; Angel [McCoughtry] just put her head down and drove to the basket and got the fouls called. But we're smarter than we showed, and that's the disappointing thing. We know what we needed to do. We watched tape. But we just didn't execute it."
Catchings now will try to get healthy for 2012, when she hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team again and lead the Fever to that elusive title.
"I am going to have to take some time off to let everything heal," she said. "I will get with the doctors and see what the next steps are. Tomorrow, I have a big day at the hospital. That will be the first thing.
"In looking at what's ahead of me -- the way that I play, by playing so hard, it does allow me to be more susceptible to injuries because I can't not give 110 percent when I'm out there. Even when I kind of try to slow down a little bit, I can't."
Catchings and Douglas both will turn 33 next season. January's absence hurt the Fever in facing athleticism on the perimeter like Atlanta has, which is part of why the Dream won six of the seven meetings between these teams this season. So while Catchings concentrates on healing, the Fever will have to look at the personnel surrounding her.
"I think adversity builds character," Catchings said, and she would know. "You look at where we are and what we've been through -- a lot of people don't even know the half of what goes on -- you are dealing with different situations on and off the court. You look at next year and know the things we need to do to get better as a team. And individually, players need to get better. I know there will be some changes; there always are. So we'll see what happens."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.